Perceiving Infinity: An Interplay Between Numerical and Physical Magnitude

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Abstract

Our mental representation of the infinite has received little research attention in cognitive psychology. In countably infinite sets, the infinity symbol (œ) is presumed to be perceived as larger than any finite natural number. The present study sought to explore if the infinity symbol is processed as “larger than” natural numbers, and, if so, whether it is associated with the special status of “the largest.” In a series of four experiments (N = 40, 20, 20, and 40, respectively), participants performed numerical and physical comparisons of the infinity symbol against single- and multidigit numbers. Overall, numerical comparisons yielded slower responses for comparisons between infinity and a number than for comparisons between two numbers. Furthermore, distance-like effects were obtained for comparisons to infinity, suggesting the infinity symbol was treated as larger than all numbers presented. Importantly, however, physical comparisons revealed a normal size congruity effect for comparisons of infinity and single digits, but a reversed effect for comparisons of infinity and multidigit numbers, suggesting that the infinity symbol was automatically processed as smaller than multidigit numbers. These novel findings reveal limitations in abstracting the meanings of infinity from its symbol, indicating that the infinity symbol is not perceived as “the largest” and can be misconceived as a “number” mapped onto the numerical magnitude system. More generally, the results seem to reflect a crude, automatic evaluation of numerical magnitude based on the physical magnitude of the stimuli, namely, their overall length and the number of symbols of which they are comprised.

Keywords

  • infinity
  • multidigit numbers
  • numerical magnitude
  • physical magnitude

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

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