Number sense in human infants


Address for correspondence: Fei Xu, Department of Psychology, 2406-2136 West Mall, Kenny Building, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z4, Canada; e-mail:


Four experiments used a preferential looking method to investigate 6-month-old infants’ capacity to represent numerosity in visual-spatial displays. Building on previous findings that such infants discriminate between arrays of eight versus 16 discs, but not eight versus 12 discs (Xu & Spelke, 2000), Experiments 1 and 2 investigated whether infants’ numerosity discrimination depends on the ratio of the two set sizes with even larger numerosities. Infants successfully discriminated between arrays of 16 versus 32 discs, but not 16 versus 24 discs, providing evidence that their discrimination shows the set-size ratio signature of numerosity discrimination in human adults, children and many non-human animals. Experiments 3 and 4 addressed a controversy concerning infants’ ability to discriminate large numerosities (observed under conditions that control for total filled area, array size and density, item size and correlated properties such as brightness: Brannon, 2002; Xu, 2003b; Xu & Spelke, 2000) versus small numerosities (not observed under conditions that control for total contour length: Clearfield & Mix, 1999). To investigate the sources of these differing findings, Experiment 3 tested infants’ large-number discrimination with controls for contour length, and Experiment 4 tested small-number discrimination with controls for total filled area. Infants successfully discriminated the large-number displays but showed no evidence of discriminating the small-number displays. These findings provide evidence that infants have robust abilities to represent large numerosities. In contrast, infants may fail to represent small numerosities in visual-spatial arrays with continuous quantity controls, consistent with the thesis that separate systems serve to represent large versus small numerosities.