Dissociating Parallel and Serial Processing of Numerical Value


  • Kassandra R. Lee Orcid
  • Kenith V. Sobel
  • A. Kane York
  • Amrita M. Puri


Digits serve as useful tools for studying the interaction between low-level perceptual representations and higher-level semantic information, and also the degree to which processing these stimulus attributes relies on similar or different mechanisms. Following a body of literature that debates the influence of high-level, semantic information on perceptual processing, and work by Van Opstal and colleagues (2011) investigating whether subliminally presented digit arrays affect estimates of numerical averages, here we explored the temporal dynamics of extracting numerical values associated with each digit in an array. Specifically, we examined reaction times (RTs) for estimating the average of digit arrays of varying sizes to determine whether numerical meaning is extracted in parallel, or instead may require serial processing of individual digits. In Experiment 1, participants completed a numerical mean estimation task, along with visual search tasks designed to yield RT patterns across increasing display sizes thought to be characteristic of serial and parallel processes. In Experiment 2, we controlled for brightness cues that could have contributed to performance in Experiment 1. In both experiments, comparing RT patterns for the numerical averaging tasks to those of the search tasks suggested that semantic information from multiple digits may be extracted by a parallel processing mechanism. Unlike in either search task, RTs improved with increasing display size, indicating a potential benefit of larger displays as has been reported for extracting ensemble, or summary statistical representations of lower-level visual information.