To test whether first- and second-order stimuli are processed independently in amblyopic vision, we measured thresholds for identifying a target letter flanked by two letters for all combinations of first- and second-order targets and flankers. We found that (1) the magnitude of crowding is greater for second- than for first-order letters for target and flankers of the same order type; (2) substantial but asymmetric cross-over crowding occurs such that stronger crowding is found for a second-order letter flanked by first-order letters than for the converse; (3) the spatial extent of crowding is independent of the order type of the letters. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that crowding results from an abnormal integration of target and flankers beyond the stage of feature detection, which takes place over a large distance in amblyopic vision.
amblyopia; crowding; first order; second order; letter identification
Object recognition is a central function of the visual system. As a first step, the features of an object are registered; these independently encoded features are then bound together to form a single representation. Here we investigate the locus of this “feature integration” by examining crowding, a striking breakdown of this process. Crowding, an inability to identify a peripheral target surrounded by flankers, results from “excessive integration” of target and flanker features. We presented a standard crowding display with a target C flanked by four flanker C's in the periphery. We then masked only the flankers (but not the target) with one of three kinds of masks—noise, metacontrast, and object substitution—each of which interferes at progressively higher levels of visual processing. With noise and metacontrast masks (low-level masking), the crowded target was recovered, whereas with object substitution masks (high-level masking), it was not. This places a clear upper bound on the locus of interference in crowding suggesting that crowding is not a low-level phenomenon. We conclude that feature integration, which underlies crowding, occurs prior to the locus of object substitution masking. Further, our results indicate that the integrity of the flankers, but not their identification, is crucial for crowding to occur.
Object recognition; feature integration; crowding; masking; target recovery; extrastriate cortex
Evidence that the detection of first- and second-order visual stimuli is processed by separate pathways abounds. This study asked whether first- and second-order stimuli remain independent at the stage of processing where crowding occurs. We measured thresholds for identifying a first-order (luminance defined) or second-order (contrast defined) target letter in the presence of two second- or first-order flanking letters. For comparison, we also measured thresholds when the target and flanking letters were all first or second order. Contrast of the flankers was 1.6 times their respective contrast thresholds. Measurements were obtained at the fovea and 10° in the lower visual field of four normally sighted observers. Two observers were also tested at 10° nasal visual field. As expected, in both the fovea and periphery, the magnitude of crowding (threshold elevation) was maximal at the closest letter separation and decreased as letter separation increased. The magnitude of crowding was greater for second- than for first-order target letters, independent of the order type of flankers; however, the critical distance for crowding was similar for first- and second-order letters. Substantial crossover crowding occurred when the target and flanking letters were of different order type. Our finding of substantial interaction between first- and second-order stimuli suggests that the processing of these stimuli is not independent at the stage of processing at which crowding occurs.
crowding; first order; second order; peripheral vision; letter identification
Processing of shape information in human peripheral visual fields is impeded beyond what can be expected by poorer spatial resolution. Visual crowding—the inability to identify objects in clutter—has been shown to be the primary factor limiting shape perception in peripheral vision. Despite the well documented effects of crowding, its underlying causes are poorly understood. Since spatial attention both facilitates learning of image statistics and directs saccadic eye movements, we propose that the acquisition of image statistics in peripheral visual fields is confounded by eye-movement artifacts. Specifically, the image statistics acquired under a peripherally deployed spotlight of attention is systematically biased by saccade-induced image displacements. These erroneously represented image statistics lead to inappropriate contextual interactions in the periphery and cause crowding.
Crowding is the impairment of peripheral target perception by nearby flankers. A number of recent studies have shown that crowding shares many features with grouping. Here, we investigate whether effects of crowding and grouping on target perception are related by asking whether they operate over the same spatial scale. A target letter T had two sets of flanking Ts of varying orientations. The first set was presented close to the target, yielding strong crowding. The second set was either close enough to cause crowding on their own or too far to cause crowding on their own. The Ts of the second set had the same orientation that either matched the target’s orientation (Grouped condition) or not (Ungrouped condition). In Experiment 1, the Grouped flankers reduced crowding independently of their distance from the target, suggesting that grouping operated over larger distances than crowding. In Experiments 2 and 3 we found that grouping did not affect sensitivity but produced a strong bias to report that the grouped orientation was present at the target location whether or not it was. Finally, we investigated whether this bias was a response or perceptual bias, rejecting the former in favor of a perceptual grouping explanation. We suggest that the effect of grouping is to assimilate the target to the identity of surrounding flankers when they are all the same, and that this shape assimilation effect differs in its spatial scale from the integration effect of crowding.
Conscious awareness of objects in the visual periphery is limited. This limit is not entirely the result of reduced visual acuity, but is primarily caused by crowding—the inability to identify an object when surrounded by clutter. Crowding represents a fundamental limitation of the visual system, and has to date been unexplored in infants. Do infants have a fine-grained “spotlight”, similar to adults, or a diffuse “lantern” that sets limits on what they can register in the periphery? An eye-tracking paradigm was designed to psychophysically measure crowding in 6- to 15-month-olds by showing pairs of faces at three eccentricities, in the presence or absence of flankers, and recording infants’ first saccade from central fixation to either face. Results reveal that infants can discriminate faces in the periphery, and flankers impair this ability as close as 3 degrees; the effective spatial resolution of visual perception increased with age but was only half that of adults.
inversion; crowding; attention; peripheral vision; Mooney face
Crowding occurs when stimuli in the peripheral fields become harder to identify when flanked by other items. This phenomenon has been demonstrated extensively with simple patterns (e.g., Gabors and letters). Here, we characterize crowding for everyday objects. We presented three-item arrays of objects and letters, arranged radially and tangentially in the lower visual field. Observers identified the central target, and we measured contrast energy thresholds as a function of target-to-flanker spacing. Object crowding was similar to letter crowding in spatial extent but was much weaker. The average elevation in threshold contrast energy was in the order of 1 log unit for objects as compared to 2 log units for letters and silhouette objects. Furthermore, we examined whether the exterior and interior features of an object are differentially affected by crowding. We used a circular aperture to present or exclude the object interior. Critical spacings for these aperture and “donut” objects were similar to those of intact objects. Taken together, these findings suggest that crowding between letters and objects are essentially due to the same mechanism, which affects equally the interior and exterior features of an object. However, for objects defined with varying shades of gray, it is much easier to overcome crowding by increasing contrast.
spatial vision; object recognition; detection/discrimination
Crowding is a prominent phenomenon in peripheral vision where nearby objects impede one’s ability to identify a target of interest. The precise mechanism of crowding is not known. We used ideal observer analysis and a noise-masking paradigm to identify the functional mechanism of crowding. We tested letter identification in the periphery with and without flanking letters and found that crowding increases equivalent input noise and decreases sampling efficiency. Crowding effectively causes the signal from the target to be noisier and at the same time reduces the visual system’s ability to make use of a noisy signal. After practicing identification of flanked letters without noise in the periphery for 6 days, subjects’ performance for identifying flanked letters improved (reduction of crowding). Across subjects, the improvement was attributable to either a decrease in crowding-induced equivalent input noise or an increase in sampling efficiency, but seldom both. This pattern of results is consistent with a simple model whereby learning reduces crowding by adjusting the spatial extent of a perceptual window used to gather relevant input features. Following learning, subjects with inappropriately large windows reduced their window sizes; while subjects with inappropriately small windows increased their window sizes. The improvement in equivalent input noise and sampling efficiency persists for at least 6 months.
peripheral vision; crowding; perceptual learning; ideal observer analysis
We enjoy the illusion that visual resolution is high across the entire field of vision. However, this illusion can be easily dispelled by trying to identify objects in a cluttered environment out of the corner of your eye. This reflects in part, the well-known decline in visual resolution in peripheral vision, however, the main bottleneck for reading or object recognition in peripheral vision is the crowding. Objects that can be easily identified in isolation seem indistinct and jumbled in clutter. Crowding is thought to reflect inappropriate integration of the target and flankers in peripheral vision1,2. Here we uncover and explain a paradox in peripheral crowding: under certain conditions increasing the size or number of flanking rings results in a paradoxical decrease in the magnitude of crowding – i.e., the bigger or more numerous the flanks, the smaller the crowding. These surprising results are predicted by a model in which crowding is determined by the centroids of ≈ 4 – 8 independent features within ≈ 0.5 times the target eccentricity. These features are then integrated into a texture beyond the stage of feature analysis. We speculate that this process may contribute to the illusion of high resolution across the field of vision.
Amblyopia is a developmental abnormality that results in deficits for a wide range of visual tasks, most notably, the reduced ability to see fine details, the loss in contrast sensitivity especially for small objects and the difficulty in seeing objects in clutter (crowding). The primary goal of this study was to evaluate whether crowding can be ameliorated in adults with amblyopia through perceptual learning using a flanked letter identification task that was designed to reduce crowding, and if so, whether the improvements transfer to untrained visual functions: visual acuity, contrast sensitivity and the size of visual span (the amount of information obtained in one fixation). To evaluate whether the improvements following this training task were specific to training with flankers, we also trained another group of adult observers with amblyopia using a single letter identification task that was designed to improve letter contrast sensitivity, not crowding. Following 10,000 trials of training, both groups of observers showed improvements in the respective training task. The improvements generalized to improved visual acuity, letter contrast sensitivity, size of the visual span, and reduced crowding. The magnitude of the improvement for each of these measurements was similar in the two training groups. Perceptual learning regimens aimed at reducing crowding or improving letter contrast sensitivity are both effective in improving visual acuity, contrast sensitivity for near-acuity objects and reducing the crowding effect, and could be useful as a clinical treatment for amblyopia.
Objects in natural scenes are spatially broadband; in contrast, feature detectors in the early stages of visual processing are narrowly tuned in spatial frequency. Earlier studies of feature integration using gratings suggested that integration across spatial frequencies is suboptimal. Here we re-examined this conclusion using a letter identification task at the fovea and at 10 deg in the lower visual field. We found that integration across narrow-band (1-octave) spatial frequency components of letter stimuli is optimal in the fovea. Surprisingly, this optimality is preserved in the periphery, even though feature integration is known to be deficient in the periphery from studies of other form-vision tasks such as crowding. A model that is otherwise a white-noise ideal observer except for a limited spatial resolution defined by the human contrast sensitivity function and using internal templates slightly wider in bandwidth than the stimuli is able to account for the human data. Our findings suggest that deficiency in feature integration found in peripheral vision is not across spatial frequencies.
spatial frequency channels; summation; letter identification; fovea; periphery
Human object recognition degrades sharply as the target object moves from central vision into peripheral vision. In particular, one's ability to recognize a peripheral target is severely impaired by the presence of flanking objects, a phenomenon known as visual crowding. Recent studies on how visual awareness of flanker existence influences crowding had shown mixed results. More importantly, it is not known whether conscious awareness of the existence of both the target and flankers are necessary for crowding to occur.
Here we show that crowding persists even when people are completely unaware of the flankers, which are rendered invisible through the continuous flash suppression technique. Contrast threshold for identifying the orientation of a grating pattern was elevated in the flanked condition, even when the subjects reported that they were unaware of the perceptually suppressed flankers. Moreover, we find that orientation-specific adaptation is attenuated by flankers even when both the target and flankers are invisible.
These findings complement the suggested correlation between crowding and visual awareness. What's more, our results demonstrate that conscious awareness and attention are not prerequisite for crowding.
Crowding is the breakdown in object recognition that occurs in cluttered visual environments [1–4] and the fundamental limit on peripheral vision, affecting identification within many visual modalities [5–9] and across large spatial regions . Though frequently characterized as a disruptive process through which object representations are suppressed [11, 12] or lost altogether [13–15], we demonstrate that crowding systematically changes the appearance of objects. In particular, target patches of visual noise that are surrounded (“crowded”) by oriented Gabor flankers become perceptually oriented, matching the flankers. This was established with a change-detection paradigm: under crowded conditions, target changes from noise to Gabor went unnoticed when the Gabor orientation matched the flankers (and the illusory target percept), despite being easily detected when they differed. Rotation of the flankers (leaving target noise unaltered) also induced illusory target rotations. Blank targets led to similar results, demonstrating that crowding can induce apparent structure where none exists. Finally, adaptation to these stimuli induced a tilt aftereffect at the target location, consistent with signals from the flankers “spreading” across space. These results confirm predictions from change-based models of crowding, such as averaging , and establish crowding as a regularization process that simplifies the peripheral field by promoting consistent appearance among adjacent objects.
► Patches of visual noise become perceptually oriented when crowded by Gabor elements ► Changes from crowded-noise targets to Gabors go unnoticed when perceptually matched ► Adaptation to crowded change gives tilt aftereffects in the target location ► Crowding promotes consistency by regularizing the peripheral visual field
Crowding, the difficulty in identifying a letter embedded in other letters, has been suggested as an explanation for slow reading in peripheral vision. In this study, we asked whether crowding in peripheral vision can be reduced through training on identifying crowded letters, and if so, whether these changes will lead to improved peripheral reading speed. We measured the spatial extent of crowding, and reading speeds for a range of print sizes at 10° inferior visual field before and after training. Following training, averaged letter identification performance improved by 88% at the trained (the closest) letter separation. The improvement transferred to other untrained separations such that the spatial extent of crowding decreased by 38%. However, averaged maximum reading speed improved by a mere 7.2%. These findings demonstrated that crowding in peripheral vision could be reduced through training. Unfortunately, the reduction in the crowding effect did not lead to improved peripheral reading speed.
crowding; perceptual learning; training; reading
Crowding, generally defined as the deleterious influence of nearby contours on visual discrimination, is ubiquitous in spatial vision. Crowding impairs the ability to recognize objects in clutter. It has been extensively studied over the last 80 years or so, and much of the renewed interest is the hope that studying crowding may lead to a better understanding of the processes involved in object recognition. Crowding also has important clinical implications for patients with macular degeneration, amblyopia and dyslexia.
There is no shortage of theories for crowding–from low-level receptive field models to high-level attention. The current picture is that crowding represents an essential bottleneck for object perception, impairing object perception in peripheral, amblyopic and possibly developing vision. Crowding is neither masking nor surround suppression. We can localize crowding to the cortex, perhaps as early as V1; however, there is a growing consensus for a two-stage model of crowding in which the first stage involves the detection of simple features (perhaps in V1), and a second stage is required for the integration or interpretation of the features as an object beyond V1. There is evidence for top-down effects in crowding, but the role of attention in this process remains unclear. The strong effect of learning in shrinking the spatial extent of crowding places strong constraints on possible models for crowding and for object recognition.
The goal of this review is to try to provide a broad, balanced and succinct review that organizes and summarizes the diverse and scattered studies of crowding, and also helps to explain it to the non-specialist. A full understanding of crowding may allow us to understand this bottleneck to object recognition and the rules that govern the integration of features into objects.
Crowding; contour interaction; contour integration; contour segmentation; attentional resolution; object recognition; surround suppression; masking; peripheral vision; amblyopia
Crowding, the inability to recognize objects in clutter, sets a fundamental limit on conscious visual perception and object recognition throughout most of the visual field. Despite how widespread and essential it is to object recognition, reading, and visually guided action, a solid operational definition of what crowding is has only recently become clear. The goal of this review is to provide a broad-based synthesis of the most recent findings in this area, to define what crowding is and is not, and to set the stage for future work that will extend crowding well beyond low-level vision. Here we define five diagnostic criteria for what counts as crowding, and further describe factors that both escape and break crowding. All of these lead to the conclusion that crowding occurs at multiple stages in the visual hierarchy.
This systematic review gives an overview of foveal crowding (the inability to recognize objects due to surrounding nearby contours in foveal vision) and possible interventions. Foveal crowding can have a major effect on reading rate and deciphering small pieces of information from busy visual scenes. Three specific groups experience more foveal crowding than adults with normal vision (NV): 1) children with NV, 2) visually impaired (VI) children and adults and 3) children with cerebral visual impairment (CVI). The extent and magnitude of foveal crowding as well as interventions aimed at reducing crowding were investigated in this review. The twofold goal of this review is : [A] to compare foveal crowding in children with NV, VI children and adults and CVI children and [B] to compare interventions to reduce crowding.
Three electronic databases were used to conduct the literature search: PubMed, PsycINFO (Ovid), and Cochrane. Additional studies were identified by contacting experts. Search terms included visual perception, contour interaction, crowding, crowded, and contour interactions.
Children with normal vision show an extent of contour interaction over an area 1.5–3× as large as that seen in adults NV. The magnitude of contour interaction normally ranges between 1–2 lines on an acuity chart and this magnitude is even larger when stimuli are arranged in a circular configuration. Adults with congenital nystagmus (CN) show interaction areas that are 2× larger than those seen adults with NV. The magnitude of the crowding effect is also 2× as large in individuals with CN as in individuals with NV. Finally, children with CVI experience a magnitude of the crowding effect that is 3× the size of that experienced by adults with NV.
The methodological heterogeneity, the diversity in paradigms used to measure crowding, made it impossible to conduct a meta-analysis. This is the first systematic review to compare crowding ratios and it shows that charts with 50% interoptotype spacing were most sensitive to capture crowding effects. The groups that showed the largest crowding effects were individuals with CN, VI adults with central scotomas and children with CVI. Perceptual Learning seems to be a promising technique to reduce excessive foveal crowding effects.
Effects of non-adjacent flanking elements on crowding of letter stimuli were examined in experiments manipulating the number of flanking elements and the deployment of spatial attention. To this end, identification accuracy of single letters was compared with identification of letter targets surrounded by two, four, or six flanking elements placed symmetrically left and right of the target. Target stimuli were presented left or right of a central fixation, and appeared either unilaterally or with an equivalent number of characters in the contralateral visual field (bilateral presentation). Experiment 1A tested letter targets with random letter flankers, and Experiments 1B and 2 tested letter targets with Xs as flanking stimuli. The results revealed a number of flankers effect that extended beyond standard two-flanker crowding. Flanker interference was stronger with random letter flankers compared with homogeneous Xs, and performance was systematically better under unilateral presentation conditions compared with bilateral presentation. Furthermore, the difference between the zero-flanker and two-flanker conditions was significantly greater under bilateral presentation, whereas the difference between two-flankers and four-flankers did not differ across unilateral and bilateral presentation. The complete pattern of results can be captured by the independent contributions of excessive feature integration and deployment of spatial attention to letter-in-string visibility.
letter perception; crowding; non-adjacent flankers; number of flankers; spatial attention
We investigated the role of crowding in saccadic selection during visual search. To guide eye movements, often information from the visual periphery is used. Crowding is known to deteriorate the quality of peripheral information. In four search experiments, we studied the role of crowding, by accompanying individual search elements by flankers. Varying the difference between target and flankers allowed us to manipulate crowding strength throughout the stimulus. We found that eye movements are biased toward areas with little crowding for conditions where a target could be discriminated peripherally. Interestingly, for conditions in which the target could not be discriminated peripherally, this bias reversed to areas with strong crowding. This led to shorter search times for a target presented in areas with stronger crowding, compared to a target presented in areas with less crowding. These findings suggest a dual role for crowding in visual search. The presence of flankers similar to the target deteriorates the quality of the peripheral target signal but can also attract eye movements, as more potential targets are present over the area.
Visual search; Crowding; Saccadic selection; Potential targets
Peripheral vision provides a less faithful representation of the visual input than foveal vision. Nonetheless, we can gain a lot of information about the world from our peripheral vision, for example in order to plan eye movements. The phenomenon of crowding shows that the reduction of information available in the periphery is not merely the result of reduced resolution. Crowding refers to visual phenomena in which identification of a target stimulus is significantly impaired by the presence of nearby stimuli, or flankers. What information is available in the periphery? We propose that the visual system locally represents peripheral stimuli by the joint statistics of responses of cells sensitive to different position, phase, orientation, and scale. This “textural” representation by summary statistics predicts the subjective “jumble” of features often associated with crowding. We show that the difficulty of performing an identification task within a single pooling region using this representation of the stimuli is correlated with peripheral identification performance under conditions of crowding. Furthermore, for a simple stimulus with no flankers, this representation can be adequate to specify the stimulus with some position invariance. This provides evidence that a unified neuronal mechanism may underlie peripheral vision, ordinary pattern recognition in central vision, and texture perception. A key component of our methodology involves creating visualizations of the information available in the summary statistics of a stimulus. We call these visualizations “mongrels” and show that they are highly useful in examining how the early visual system represents the visual input. Mongrels enable one to study the “equivalence classes” of our model, i.e., the sets of stimuli that map to the same representation according to the model.
peripheral vision; crowding; texture perception; texture synthesis; computational model
An object or feature is generally more difficult to identify when other objects are presented nearby, an effect referred to as crowding. Here, we used Mooney faces to examine whether crowding can also occur within and between holistic face representations (C. M. Mooney, 1957). Mooney faces are ideal stimuli for this test because no cues exist to distinguish facial features in a Mooney face; to find any facial feature, such as an eye or a nose, one must first holistically perceive the image as a face. Through a series of six experiments we tested the effect of crowding on Mooney face recognition. Our results demonstrate crowding between and within Mooney faces and fulfill the diagnostic criteria for crowding, including eccentricity dependence and lack of crowding in the fovea, critical flanker spacing consistent with less than half the eccentricity of the target, and inner-outer flanker asymmetry. Further, our results show that recognition of an upright Mooney face is more strongly impaired by upright Mooney face flankers than inverted ones. Taken together, these results suggest crowding can occur selectively between high-level representations of faces and that crowding must occur at multiple levels in the visual system.
peripheral vision; spatial vision; object recognition; inversion; asymmetry
Amblyopia is a developmental visual disorder of cortical origin, characterized by crowding and poor acuity in central vision of the affected eye. Crowding refers to the adverse effects of surrounding items on object identification, common only in normal peripheral but not central vision. We trained a group of adult human amblyopes on a crowded letter identification task to assess whether the crowding problem can be ameliorated. Letter size was fixed well above the acuity limit, and letter spacing was varied to obtain spacing thresholds for central target identification. Normally sighted observers practiced the same task in their lower peripheral visual field. Independent measures of acuity were taken in flanked and unflanked conditions before and after training to measure crowding ratios at three fixed letter separations. Practice improved the letter spacing thresholds of both groups on the training task, and crowding ratios were reduced after posttest. The reductions in crowding in amblyopes were associated with improvements in standard measures of visual acuity. Thus, perceptual learning reduced the deleterious effects of crowding in amblyopia and in the normal periphery. The results support the effectiveness of plasticity-based approaches for improving vision in adult amblyopes and suggest experience-dependent effects on the cortical substrates of crowding.
Object recognition in the peripheral visual field is limited by crowding: the disruptive influence of nearby clutter [1, 2]. Despite its severity, little is known about the cortical locus of crowding. Here, we examined the neural correlates of crowding by combining event-related fMRI adaptation with a change-detection paradigm . Crowding can change the appearance of objects, such that items become perceptually matched to surrounding objects; we used this change in appearance as a signature of crowding and measured brain activity that correlated with the crowded percept. Observers adapted to a peripheral patch of noise surrounded by four Gabor flankers. When crowded, the noise appears oriented and perceptually indistinguishable from the flankers. Consequently, substitution of the noise for a Gabor identical to the flankers (“change-same”) is rarely detected, whereas substitution for an orthogonal Gabor (“change-different”) is rarely missed. We predicted that brain areas representing the crowded percept would show repetition suppression in change-same trials but release from adaptation in change-different trials. This predicted pattern was observed throughout cortical visual areas V1–V4, increasing in strength from early to late visual areas. These results depict crowding as a multistage process, involving even the earliest cortical visual areas, with perceptual consequences that are increasingly influenced by later visual areas.
► Crowding influences brain activity throughout the early retinotopic cortex ► Modulation increases from early (V1/V2) to late (V3/V4) visual areas ► The progressive influence of crowding parallels the increase in receptive-field size ► These findings suggest crowding is a multistage process
Crowding–the deleterious influence of clutter on object recognition–disrupts the identification of visual features as diverse as orientation, motion, and color. It is unclear whether this occurs via independent feature-specific crowding processes (preceding the feature binding process) or via a singular (late) mechanism tuned for combined features. To examine the relationship between feature binding and crowding, we measured interactions between the crowding of relative position and orientation. Stimuli were a target cross and two flanker crosses (each composed of two near-orthogonal lines), 15 degrees in the periphery. Observers judged either the orientation (clockwise/counterclockwise) of the near-horizontal target line, its position (up/down relative to the stimulus center), or both. For single-feature judgments, crowding affected position and orientation similarly: thresholds were elevated and responses biased in a manner suggesting that the target appeared more like the flankers. These effects were tuned for orientation, with near-orthogonal elements producing little crowding. This tuning allowed us to separate the predictions of independent (feature specific) and combined (singular) models: for an independent model, reduced crowding for one feature has no effect on crowding for other features, whereas a combined process affects either all features or none. When observers made conjoint judgments, a reduction of orientation crowding (by increasing target–flanker orientation differences) increased the rate of correct responses for both position and orientation, as predicted by our combined model. In contrast, our independent model incorrectly predicted a high rate of position errors, since the probability of positional crowding would be unaffected by changes in orientation. Thus, at least for these features, crowding is a singular process that affects bound position and orientation values in an all-or-none fashion.
crowding; orientation; position; feature binding; peripheral visual field
An object in the peripheral visual field is more difficult to recognize when surrounded by other objects. This phenomenon is called “crowding”. Crowding places a fundamental constraint on human vision that limits performance on numerous tasks. It has been suggested that crowding results from spatial feature integration necessary for object recognition. However, in the absence of convincing models, this theory has remained controversial. Here, we present a quantitative and physiologically plausible model for spatial integration of orientation signals, based on the principles of population coding. Using simulations, we demonstrate that this model coherently accounts for fundamental properties of crowding, including critical spacing, “compulsory averaging”, and a foveal-peripheral anisotropy. Moreover, we show that the model predicts increased responses to correlated visual stimuli. Altogether, these results suggest that crowding has little immediate bearing on object recognition but is a by-product of a general, elementary integration mechanism in early vision aimed at improving signal quality.
Visual crowding refers to the phenomenon that objects become more difficult to recognize when other objects surround them. Recently there has been an explosion of studies on crowding, driven, in part, by the belief that understanding crowding will help to understand a range of visual behaviours, including object recognition, visual search, reading, and texture recognition. Given the long-standing interest in the topic and its relevance for a wide range of research fields, it is quite surprising that after nearly a century of research the mechanisms underlying crowding are still as poorly understood as they are today. A nearly complete lack of quantitative models seems to be one of the main reasons for this. Here, we present a mathematical, biologically motivated model of feature integration at the level of neuron populations. Using simulations, we demonstrate that several fundamental properties of the crowding effect can be explained as the by-product of an integration mechanism that may have a function in contour integration. Altogether, these results help differentiate between earlier theories about both the neural and functional origin of crowding.