Why do we perceive smaller numbers better?

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The human brain perceives smaller numbers better due to a combination of two mechanisms. One mechanism estimates quantities, while the other sharpens the accuracy of those estimates, but only for small numbers. This phenomenon was first observed by economist and philosopher William Stanley Jevons over 150 years ago. He noticed that when there were four or fewer objects, he could accurately guess the number, but for five or more, his quick estimations were often incorrect1. This ability to quickly and accurately perceive small quantities is known as "subitizing". It is a form of rapid, automatic counting that can be applied to quantities up to about four items. Beyond this limit, counting becomes a conscious, attention-demanding activity4. Research has shown that the brain has specific neurons that are tuned to certain numbers. For example, some neurons fire more when they are presented with three objects, while others fire more when presented with five objects. These neurons also fire for numbers adjacent to their preferred number, but not as often, and as the presented number gets farther away from the preferred number, the neurons' firing rate decreases14. The ability to perceive and differentiate numeric quantities is critical for survival, as it increases an animal's chances of finding food, avoiding predators, and ultimately reproducing. This innate number sense is therefore critical to survival1. However, it's important to note that this doesn't mean we perceive smaller numbers "better" in a general sense. Rather, we can perceive the size of a small collection more directly and accurately. For larger collections, we rely on counting, which is not a form of perception but a cognitive process4. Moreover, the ability to perceive small numbers directly is not hard-coded in our brains. It can be trained and improved. For example, autistic savants can subitize up to thirty or more, with unconfirmed cases up to several hundred4. In conclusion, our brains are better at perceiving smaller numbers due to a combination of specific neurons that are tuned to certain numbers and the cognitive process of subitizing. However, this ability is not fixed and can be improved with training.
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