Answer as fast as you can: how many cats are in the image up top? Did you answer without counting them individually? Probably not – but if you were pushing yourself, there's a good chance you tallied them in groups of three or four. Now, researchers say they've identified a small tangle of neurons that makes this speedy form of quantification possible.
The ability to quickly recognize a quantity of something without individual counting is called "subitizing." In the latest issue of Science, researchers say they've identified a small grouping of around 80,000 neurons just above each ear that facilitates this time-saving mental trick.
Some scientists think of this ability as a kind of sixth sense, something like a number sense. One reason is that the skill appears to originate in specific parts of the brain much like our sense of touch and sight.
"When we see a small number of items visually, we don't need to count them," says Ben Harvey, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who lead the study. "We just know how many there are straight away."
Most people hit their limit at around five items, Harvey says. Then people get less and less accurate about estimating the quantity.
But there's definitely variation among people. "One subject we measured was just beautiful," he says. "His brain responds all the way through the number eight."