Number adaptation: A critical look

Cognition 249 (105813):1-17 (2024)
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It is often assumed that adaptation — a temporary change in sensitivity to a perceptual dimension following exposure to that dimension — is a litmus test for what is and is not a “primary visual attribute”. Thus, papers purporting to find evidence of number adaptation motivate a claim of great philosophical significance: That number is something that can be seen in much the way that canonical visual features, like color, contrast, size, and speed, can. Fifteen years after its reported discovery, number adaptation’s existence seems to be nearly undisputed, with dozens of papers documenting support for the phenomenon. The aim of this paper is to offer a counterweight — to critically assess the evidence for and against number adaptation. After surveying the many reasons for thinking that number adaptation exists, we introduce several lesser-known reasons to be skeptical. We then advance an alternative account — the old news hypothesis — which can accommodate previously published findings while explaining various (otherwise unexplained) anomalies in the existing literature. Next, we describe the results of eight pre-registered experiments which pit our novel old news hypothesis against the received number adaptation hypothesis. Collectively, the results of these experiments undermine the number adaptation hypothesis on several fronts, whilst consistently supporting the old news hypothesis. More broadly our work raises questions about the status of adaptation itself as a means of discerning what is and is not a visual attribute.

Author's Profile

Sam Clarke
University of Southern California


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