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1.  Crowding Between First- and Second-Order Letters in Amblyopia 
Vision research  2008;48(6):788-798.
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.
PMCID: PMC2739010  PMID: 18241910
amblyopia; crowding; first order; second order; letter identification
2.  Crowding - an essential bottleneck for object recognition: a mini-review 
Vision research  2008;48(5):635-654.
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.
PMCID: PMC2268888  PMID: 18226828
Crowding; contour interaction; contour integration; contour segmentation; attentional resolution; object recognition; surround suppression; masking; peripheral vision; amblyopia
3.  Prominent effects and neural correlates of visual crowding in a neurodegenerative disease population 
Brain  2014;137(12):3284-3299.
Visual crowding is a perceptual phenomenon whereby recognition of a stimulus is disrupted by the presence of flanker stimuli. Yong et al. observe excessive crowding in individuals with a neurodegenerative condition (posterior cortical atrophy) and identify associations between prominent crowding and lower grey matter volume in the right collateral sulcus.
Crowding is a breakdown in the ability to identify objects in clutter, and is a major constraint on object recognition. Crowding particularly impairs object perception in peripheral, amblyopic and possibly developing vision. Here we argue that crowding is also a critical factor limiting object perception in central vision of individuals with neurodegeneration of the occipital cortices. In the current study, individuals with posterior cortical atrophy (n = 26), typical Alzheimer’s disease (n = 17) and healthy control subjects (n = 14) completed centrally-presented tests of letter identification under six different flanking conditions (unflanked, and with letter, shape, number, same polarity and reverse polarity flankers) with two different target-flanker spacings (condensed, spaced). Patients with posterior cortical atrophy were significantly less accurate and slower to identify targets in the condensed than spaced condition even when the target letters were surrounded by flankers of a different category. Importantly, this spacing effect was observed for same, but not reverse, polarity flankers. The difference in accuracy between spaced and condensed stimuli was significantly associated with lower grey matter volume in the right collateral sulcus, in a region lying between the fusiform and lingual gyri. Detailed error analysis also revealed that similarity between the error response and the averaged target and flanker stimuli (but not individual target or flanker stimuli) was a significant predictor of error rate, more consistent with averaging than substitution accounts of crowding. Our findings suggest that crowding in posterior cortical atrophy can be regarded as a pre-attentive process that uses averaging to regularize the pathologically noisy representation of letter feature position in central vision. These results also help to clarify the cortical localization of feature integration components of crowding. More broadly, we suggest that posterior cortical atrophy provides a neurodegenerative disease model for exploring the basis of crowding. These data have significant implications for patients with, or who will go on to develop, dementia-related visual impairment, in whom acquired excessive crowding likely contributes to deficits in word, object, face and scene perception.
PMCID: PMC4240300  PMID: 25351740
crowding; lateral masking; Alzheimer’s disease; posterior cortical atrophy; acquired dyslexia
4.  The Effect of Aging on Crowded Letter Recognition in the Peripheral Visual Field 
Crowding describes the increased difficulty in identifying a target object when it is surrounded by nearby objects (flankers). A recent study investigated the effect of age on visual crowding and found equivocal results: Although crowded visual acuity was worse in older participants, crowding expressed as a ratio did not change with age. However, the spatial extent of crowding is a better index of crowding effects and remains unknown. In the present study, we used established psychophysical methods to characterize the effect of age on visual crowding (magnitude and extent) in a letter recognition task.
Letter recognition thresholds were determined for three different flanker separations in 54 adults (aged 18–76 years) with normal vision. Additionally, the spatial extent of crowding was established by measuring spacing thresholds: the flanker-to-target separation required to produce a given reduction in performance. Uncrowded visual acuity, crowded visual acuity, and spacing thresholds were expressed as a function of age, avoiding arbitrary categorization of young and old participants.
Our results showed that uncrowded and crowded visual acuities do not change significantly as a function of age. Furthermore, spacing thresholds did not change with age and approximated Bouma's law (half eccentricity).
These data show that crowding in adults is unaffected by senescence and provide additional evidence for distinct neural mechanisms mediating surround suppression and visual crowding, since the former shows a significant age effect. Finally, our data suggest that the well-documented age-related decline in peripheral reading ability is not due to age-related changes in visual crowding.
Crowding for a peripheral letter recognition task was measured as a function of age. Both the magnitude and spatial extent of crowding did not change with age. The results have important implications for the visual rehabilitation of patients with central vision loss.
PMCID: PMC4132554  PMID: 24985476
crowding; aging; visual acuity; critical spacing; reading
5.  Holistic crowding of Mooney faces 
Journal of vision  2009;9(6):18.1-1815.
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.
PMCID: PMC2857385  PMID: 19761309
peripheral vision; spatial vision; object recognition; inversion; asymmetry
6.  Crowding between first- and second-order letter stimuli in normal foveal and peripheral vision 
Journal of vision  2007;7(2):10.1-1013.
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.
PMCID: PMC2747649  PMID: 18217825
crowding; first order; second order; peripheral vision; letter identification
7.  Grouping and Crowding Affect Target Appearance over Different Spatial Scales 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(8):e71188.
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.
PMCID: PMC3742795  PMID: 23967164
8.  Recovery of a crowded object by masking the flankers: Determining the locus of feature integration 
Journal of vision  2009;9(10):4.1-4.9.
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.
PMCID: PMC2766569  PMID: 19810785
Object recognition; feature integration; crowding; masking; target recovery; extrastriate cortex
9.  Meaningful Interpretation of Subdiffusive Measurements in Living Cells (Crowded Environment) by Fluorescence Fluctuation Microscopy 
In living cell or its nucleus, the motions of molecules are complicated due to the large crowding and expected heterogeneity of the intracellular environment. Randomness in cellular systems can be either spatial (anomalous) or temporal (heterogeneous). In order to separate both processes, we introduce anomalous random walks on fractals that represented crowded environments. We report the use of numerical simulation and experimental data of single-molecule detection by fluorescence fluctuation microscopy for detecting resolution limits of different mobile fractions in crowded environment of living cells. We simulate the time scale behavior of diffusion times τD(τ) for one component, e.g. the fast mobile fraction, and a second component, e.g. the slow mobile fraction. The less the anomalous exponent α the higher the geometric crowding of the underlying structure of motion that is quantified by the ratio of the Hausdorff dimension and the walk exponent d f /dw and specific for the type of crowding generator used. The simulated diffusion time decreases for smaller values of α ≠ 1 but increases for a larger time scale τ at a given value of α ≠ 1. The effect of translational anomalous motion is substantially greater if α differs much from 1. An α value close to 1 contributes little to the time dependence of subdiffusive motions. Thus, quantitative determination of molecular weights from measured diffusion times and apparent diffusion coefficients, respectively, in temporal auto- and crosscorrelation analyses and from time-dependent fluorescence imaging data are difficult to interpret and biased in crowded environments of living cells and their cellular compartments; anomalous dynamics on different time scales τ must be coupled with the quantitative analysis of how experimental parameters change with predictions from simulated subdiffusive dynamics of molecular motions and mechanistic models. We first demonstrate that the crowding exponent α also determines the resolution of differences in diffusion times between two components in addition to photophyscial parameters well-known for normal motion in dilute solution. The resolution limit between two different kinds of single molecule species is also analyzed under translational anomalous motion with broken ergodicity. We apply our theoretical predictions of diffusion times and lower limits for the time resolution of two components to fluorescence images in human prostate cancer cells transfected with GFP-Ago2 and GFP-Ago1. In order to mimic heterogeneous behavior in crowded environments of living cells, we need to introduce so-called continuous time random walks (CTRW). CTRWs were originally performed on regular lattice. This purely stochastic molecule behavior leads to subdiffusive motion with broken ergodicity in our simulations. For the first time, we are able to quantitatively differentiate between anomalous motion without broken ergodicity and anomalous motion with broken ergodicity in time-dependent fluorescence microscopy data sets of living cells. Since the experimental conditions to measure a selfsame molecule over an extended period of time, at which biology is taken place, in living cells or even in dilute solution are very restrictive, we need to perform the time average over a subpopulation of different single molecules of the same kind. For time averages over subpopulations of single molecules, the temporal auto- and crosscorrelation functions are first found. Knowing the crowding parameter α for the cell type and cellular compartment type, respectively, the heterogeneous parameter γ can be obtained from the measurements in the presence of the interacting reaction partner, e.g. ligand, with the same α value. The product α⋅γ=γ˜ is not a simple fitting parameter in the temporal auto- and two-color crosscorrelation functions because it is related to the proper physical models of anomalous (spatial) and heterogeneous (temporal) randomness in cellular systems. We have already derived an analytical solution for γ˜ in the special case of γ = 3/2 . In the case of two-color crosscorrelation or/and two-color fluorescence imaging (co-localization experiments), the second component is also a two-color species gr, for example a different molecular complex with an additional ligand. Here, we first show that plausible biological mechanisms from FCS/ FCCS and fluorescence imaging in living cells are highly questionable without proper quantitative physical models of subdiffusive motion and temporal randomness. At best, such quantitative FCS/ FCCS and fluorescence imaging data are difficult to interpret under crowding and heterogeneous conditions. It is challenging to translate proper physical models of anomalous (spatial) and heterogeneous (temporal) randomness in living cells and their cellular compartments like the nucleus into biological models of the cell biological process under study testable by single-molecule approaches. Otherwise, quantitative FCS/FCCS and fluorescence imaging measurements in living cells are not well described and cannot be interpreted in a meaningful way.
PMCID: PMC3583073  PMID: 20553227
Anomalous motion; broken ergodicity; Continuous Time Random Walks (CTRW); Continuous Time Random Walks (CTRW) on fractal supports; cellular crowding; Cytoplasmic Assembly of Nuclear RISC; ergodicity; FCS; FCCS; Fluorescence Fluctuation Microscopy; GFP-Ago1; GFP-Ago2; heterogeneity; living cells; meaningful interpretation of subdiffusive measurements; microRNA trafficking; physical model of crowding; physical model of heterogeneity; random walks on fractal supports; resolution limits of measured diffusion times for two components; RNA Activation (RNAa); Single Molecule; Small Activating RNA (saRNA); Temporal autocorrelation; Temporal two-color crosscorrelation; Fluorescence imaging; Time dependence of apparent diffusion coefficients.
10.  The hierarchical sparse selection model of visual crowding 
Because the environment is cluttered, objects rarely appear in isolation. The visual system must therefore attentionally select behaviorally relevant objects from among many irrelevant ones. A limit on our ability to select individual objects is revealed by the phenomenon of visual crowding: an object seen in the periphery, easily recognized in isolation, can become impossible to identify when surrounded by other, similar objects. The neural basis of crowding is hotly debated: while prevailing theories hold that crowded information is irrecoverable – destroyed due to over-integration in early stage visual processing – recent evidence demonstrates otherwise. Crowding can occur between high-level, configural object representations, and crowded objects can contribute with high precision to judgments about the “gist” of a group of objects, even when they are individually unrecognizable. While existing models can account for the basic diagnostic criteria of crowding (e.g., specific critical spacing, spatial anisotropies, and temporal tuning), no present model explains how crowding can operate simultaneously at multiple levels in the visual processing hierarchy, including at the level of whole objects. Here, we present a new model of visual crowding—the hierarchical sparse selection (HSS) model, which accounts for object-level crowding, as well as a number of puzzling findings in the recent literature. Counter to existing theories, we posit that crowding occurs not due to degraded visual representations in the brain, but due to impoverished sampling of visual representations for the sake of perception. The HSS model unifies findings from a disparate array of visual crowding studies and makes testable predictions about how information in crowded scenes can be accessed.
PMCID: PMC4174752  PMID: 25309360
attention; visual attention; coarse coding; ensemble coding; summary statistics; perception; neural network
11.  A Neurophysiologically Plausible Population Code Model for Feature Integration Explains Visual Crowding 
PLoS Computational Biology  2010;6(1):e1000646.
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.
Author Summary
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.
PMCID: PMC2799670  PMID: 20098499
12.  Crowding follows the binding of relative position and orientation 
Journal of vision  2012;12(3):10.1167/12.3.18 18.
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.
PMCID: PMC3624616  PMID: 22438467
crowding; orientation; position; feature binding; peripheral visual field
13.  Dependence of Reading Speed on Letter Spacing in Central Vision Loss 
Crowding, the difficulty in recognizing a letter in close proximity with other letters, has been suggested as an explanation for slow reading in people with central vision loss. The goals of this study were (1) to examine whether increased letter spacing in words, which presumably reduces crowding among letters, would benefit reading for people with central vision loss; and (2) to relate our finding to the current account of faulty feature integration of crowding.
Fourteen observers with central vision loss read aloud single sentences, one word at a time, using rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP). Reading speeds were calculated based on the RSVP exposure durations yielding 80% accuracy. Letters were rendered in Courier, a fixed-width font. Observers were tested at 1.4× the critical print size (CPS), three were also tested at 0.8× CPS. Reading speed was measured for five center-to-center letter spacings (range: 0.5–2× the standard spacing). The preferred retinal locus (PRL) for fixation was determined for nine of the observers, from which we calculated the horizontal dimension of the integration field for crowding.
All observers showed increased reading speed with letter spacing for small spacings, until an optimal spacing, beyond which reading speed either showed a plateau, or dropped as letter spacing further increased. The optimal spacing averaged 0.95±0.06× [±95%CI] the standard spacing for 1.4× CPS (similar for 0.8× CPS), which was not different from the standard. When converted to angular size, the measured values of the optimal letter spacing for reading show a good relationship with the calculated horizontal dimension of the integration field.
Increased letter spacing beyond the standard size, which presumably reduces crowding among letters in text, does not improve reading speed for people with central vision loss. The optimal letter spacing for reading can be predicted based on the PRL.
PMCID: PMC3429790  PMID: 22842309
reading; crowding; central vision loss; low vision; age-related macular degeneration
14.  A Bio-Inspired, Motion-Based Analysis of Crowd Behavior Attributes Relevance to Motion Transparency, Velocity Gradients, and Motion Patterns 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e53456.
The analysis of motion crowds is concerned with the detection of potential hazards for individuals of the crowd. Existing methods analyze the statistics of pixel motion to classify non-dangerous or dangerous behavior, to detect outlier motions, or to estimate the mean throughput of people for an image region. We suggest a biologically inspired model for the analysis of motion crowds that extracts motion features indicative for potential dangers in crowd behavior. Our model consists of stages for motion detection, integration, and pattern detection that model functions of the primate primary visual cortex area (V1), the middle temporal area (MT), and the medial superior temporal area (MST), respectively. This model allows for the processing of motion transparency, the appearance of multiple motions in the same visual region, in addition to processing opaque motion. We suggest that motion transparency helps to identify “danger zones” in motion crowds. For instance, motion transparency occurs in small exit passages during evacuation. However, motion transparency occurs also for non-dangerous crowd behavior when people move in opposite directions organized into separate lanes. Our analysis suggests: The combination of motion transparency and a slow motion speed can be used for labeling of candidate regions that contain dangerous behavior. In addition, locally detected decelerations or negative speed gradients of motions are a precursor of danger in crowd behavior as are globally detected motion patterns that show a contraction toward a single point. In sum, motion transparency, image speeds, motion patterns, and speed gradients extracted from visual motion in videos are important features to describe the behavioral state of a motion crowd.
PMCID: PMC3534068  PMID: 23300930
15.  Object crowding 
Journal of vision  2011;11(6):10.1167/11.6.19 19.
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.
PMCID: PMC3413380  PMID: 21613388
spatial vision; object recognition; detection/discrimination
16.  The dependence of crowding on flanker complexity and target-flanker similarity 
Journal of vision  2011;11(8):10.1167/11.8.1 1.
We examined the effects of the spatial complexity of flankers and target-flanker similarity on the performance of identifying crowded letters. On each trial, observers identified the middle character of random strings of three characters (“trigrams”) briefly presented at 10° below fixation. We tested the 26 lowercase letters of the Times-Roman and Courier fonts, a set of 79 characters (letters and non-letters) of the Times-Roman font, and the uppercase letters of two highly complex ornamental fonts, Edwardian and Aristocrat. Spatial complexity of characters was quantified by the length of the morphological skeleton of each character, and target-flanker similarity was defined based on a psychometric similarity matrix. Our results showed that (1) letter identification error rate increases with flanker complexity up to a certain value, beyond which error rate becomes independent of flanker complexity; (2) the increase of error rate is slower for high-complexity target letters; (3) error rate increases with target-flanker similarity; and (4) mislocation error rate increases with target-flanker similarity. These findings, combined with the current understanding of the faulty feature integration account of crowding, provide some constraints of how the feature integration process could cause perceptual errors.
PMCID: PMC3582406  PMID: 21730225
crowding; spatial vision; letter recognition; object recognition; reading
17.  Inter-area correlations in the ventral visual pathway reflect feature integration 
Journal of vision  2011;11(4):15.
During object perception, the brain integrates simple features into representations of complex objects. A perceptual phenomenon known as visual crowding selectively interferes with this process. Here, we use crowding to characterize a neural correlate of feature integration. Cortical activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging, simultaneously in multiple areas of the ventral visual pathway (V1–V4 and the visual word form area, VWFA, which responds preferentially to familiar letters), while human subjects viewed crowded and uncrowded letters. Temporal correlations between cortical areas were lower for crowded letters than for uncrowded letters, especially between V1 and VWFA. These differences in correlation were retinotopically specific, and persisted when attention was diverted from the letters. But correlation differences were not evident when we substituted the letters with grating patches that were not crowded under our stimulus conditions. We conclude that inter-area correlations reflect feature integration and are disrupted by crowding. We propose that crowding may perturb the transformations between neural representations along the ventral pathway that underlie the integration of features into objects.
PMCID: PMC3134224  PMID: 21521832
crowding; object recognition; ventral stream; visual word form area; inter-area correlations; fMRI
18.  Localization of Protein Aggregation in Escherichia coli Is Governed by Diffusion and Nucleoid Macromolecular Crowding Effect 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(4):e1003038.
Aggregates of misfolded proteins are a hallmark of many age-related diseases. Recently, they have been linked to aging of Escherichia coli (E. coli) where protein aggregates accumulate at the old pole region of the aging bacterium. Because of the potential of E. coli as a model organism, elucidating aging and protein aggregation in this bacterium may pave the way to significant advances in our global understanding of aging. A first obstacle along this path is to decipher the mechanisms by which protein aggregates are targeted to specific intercellular locations. Here, using an integrated approach based on individual-based modeling, time-lapse fluorescence microscopy and automated image analysis, we show that the movement of aging-related protein aggregates in E. coli is purely diffusive (Brownian). Using single-particle tracking of protein aggregates in live E. coli cells, we estimated the average size and diffusion constant of the aggregates. Our results provide evidence that the aggregates passively diffuse within the cell, with diffusion constants that depend on their size in agreement with the Stokes-Einstein law. However, the aggregate displacements along the cell long axis are confined to a region that roughly corresponds to the nucleoid-free space in the cell pole, thus confirming the importance of increased macromolecular crowding in the nucleoids. We thus used 3D individual-based modeling to show that these three ingredients (diffusion, aggregation and diffusion hindrance in the nucleoids) are sufficient and necessary to reproduce the available experimental data on aggregate localization in the cells. Taken together, our results strongly support the hypothesis that the localization of aging-related protein aggregates in the poles of E. coli results from the coupling of passive diffusion-aggregation with spatially non-homogeneous macromolecular crowding. They further support the importance of “soft” intracellular structuring (based on macromolecular crowding) in diffusion-based protein localization in E. coli.
Author Summary
Localization of proteins to specific positions inside bacteria is crucial to several physiological processes, including chromosome organization, chemotaxis or cell division. Since bacterial cells do not possess internal sub-compartments (e.g., cell organelles) nor vesicle-based sorting systems, protein localization in bacteria must rely on alternative mechanisms. In many instances, the nature of these mechanisms remains to be elucidated. In Escherichia coli, the localization of aggregates of misfolded proteins at the poles or the center of the cell has recently been linked to aging. However, the molecular mechanisms governing this localization of the protein aggregates remain controversial. To identify these mechanisms, we have devised an integrated strategy combining innovative experimental and modeling approaches. Our results show the importance of the increased macromolecular crowding in the nucleoids, the regions within the cell where the bacterial chromosome preferentially condensates. They indicate that a purely diffusive pattern of aggregates mobility combined with nucleoid occlusion underlies their accumulation in polar and mid-cell positions.
PMCID: PMC3636022  PMID: 23633942
19.  Holistic crowding: Selective interference between configural representations of faces in crowded scenes 
Journal of vision  2007;7(2):10.1167/7.2.24.
It is difficult to recognize an object that falls in the peripheral visual field; it is even more difficult when there are other objects surrounding it. This effect, known as crowding, could be due to interactions between the low-level parts or features of the surrounding objects. Here, we investigated whether crowding can also occur selectively between higher level object representations. Many studies have demonstrated that upright faces, unlike most other objects, are coded holistically. Therefore, in addition to featural crowding within a face (M. Martelli, N. J. Majaj, & D. G. Pelli, 2005), we might expect an additional crowding effect between upright faces due to interference between the higher level holistic representations of these faces. In a series of experiments, we tested this by presenting an upright target face in a crowd of additional upright or inverted faces. We found that recognition was more strongly impaired when the target face was surrounded by upright compared to inverted flanker (distractor) faces; this pattern of results was absent when inverted faces and non-face objects were used as targets. This selective crowding of upright faces by other upright faces only occurred when the target–flanker separation was less than half the eccentricity of the target face, consistent with traditional crowding effects (H. Bouma, 1970; D. G. Pelli, M. Palomares, & N. J. Majaj, 2004). Likewise, the selective interference between upright faces did not occur at the fovea and was not a function of the target–flanker similarity, suggesting that crowding-specific processes were responsible. The results demonstrate that crowding can occur selectively between high-level representations of faces and may therefore occur at multiple stages in the visual system.
PMCID: PMC3849395  PMID: 18217839
vision; perception; awareness; face recognition; ensemble; spatial; lateral; masking; object
20.  Uncovering foveal crowding? 
Scientific Reports  2014;4:4067.
Visual crowding, as context modulation, reduce the ability to recognize objects in clutter, sets a fundamental limit on visual perception and object recognition. It's considered that crowding does not exist in the fovea and extensive efforts explored crowding in the periphery revealed various models that consider several aspects of spatial processing. Studies showed that spatial and temporal crowding are correlated, suggesting a tradeoff between spatial and temporal processing of crowding. We hypothesized that limiting stimulus availability should decrease object recognition in clutter. Here we show, for the first time, that robust contour interactions exist in the fovea for much larger target-flanker spacing than reported previously: participants overcome crowded conditions for long presentations times but exhibit contour interaction effects for short presentation times. Thus, by enabling enough processing time in the fovea, contour interactions can be overcome, enabling object recognition. Our results suggest that contemporary models of context modulation should include both time and spatial processing.
PMCID: PMC3921636  PMID: 24518803
21.  Constraints on Letter-in-String Identification in Peripheral Vision: Effects of Number of Flankers and Deployment of Attention 
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.
PMCID: PMC3595509  PMID: 23494610
letter perception; crowding; non-adjacent flankers; number of flankers; spatial attention
22.  Learning to Identify Near-Acuity Letters, either with or without Flankers, Results in Improved Letter Size and Spacing Limits in Adults with Amblyopia 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(4):e35829.
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.
PMCID: PMC3340394  PMID: 22558234
23.  Efficient integration across spatial frequencies for letter identification in foveal and peripheral vision 
Journal of vision  2008;8(13):3.1-320.
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.
PMCID: PMC2635099  PMID: 19146333
spatial frequency channels; summation; letter identification; fovea; periphery
24.  Cholinergic enhancement reduces orientation-specific surround suppression but not visual crowding 
Acetylcholine (ACh) reduces the spatial spread of excitatory fMRI responses in early visual cortex and receptive field size of V1 neurons. We investigated the perceptual consequences of these physiological effects of ACh with surround suppression and crowding, two phenomena that involve spatial interactions between visual field locations. Surround suppression refers to the reduction in perceived stimulus contrast by a high-contrast surround stimulus. For grating stimuli, surround suppression is selective for the relative orientations of the center and surround, suggesting that it results from inhibitory interactions in early visual cortex. Crowding refers to impaired identification of a peripheral stimulus in the presence of flankers and is thought to result from excessive integration of visual features. We increased synaptic ACh levels by administering the cholinesterase inhibitor donepezil to healthy human subjects in a placebo-controlled, double-blind design. In Experiment 1, we measured surround suppression of a central grating using a contrast discrimination task with three conditions: (1) surround grating with the same orientation as the center (parallel), (2) surround orthogonal to the center, or (3) no surround. Contrast discrimination thresholds were higher in the parallel than in the orthogonal condition, demonstrating orientation-specific surround suppression (OSSS). Cholinergic enhancement decreased thresholds only in the parallel condition, thereby reducing OSSS. In Experiment 2, subjects performed a crowding task in which they reported the identity of a peripheral letter flanked by letters on either side. We measured the critical spacing between the targets and flanking letters that allowed reliable identification. Cholinergic enhancement with donepezil had no effect on critical spacing. Our findings suggest that ACh reduces spatial interactions in tasks involving segmentation of visual field locations but that these effects may be limited to early visual cortical processing.
PMCID: PMC3444757  PMID: 23049505
acetylcholine; surround suppression; crowding; pharmacology; psychophysics
25.  Learning to identify crowded letters: Does the learning depend on the frequency of training? 
Vision research  2012;77:41-50.
Performance for many visual tasks improves with training. The magnitude of improvement following training depends on the training task, number of trials per training session and the total amount of training. Does the magnitude of improvement also depend on the frequency of training sessions? In this study, we compared the learning effect for three groups of normally sighted observers who repeatedly practiced the task of identifying crowded letters in the periphery for six sessions (1000 trials per session), according to three different training schedules — one group received one session of training everyday, the second group received a training session once a week and the third group once every two weeks. Following six sessions of training, all observers improved in their performance of identifying crowded letters in the periphery. Most importantly, the magnitudes of improvement were similar across the three training groups. The improvement was accompanied by a reduction in the spatial extent of crowding, an increase in the size of visual span and a reduction in letter-size threshold. The magnitudes of these accompanied improvements were also similar across the three training groups. Our finding that the effectiveness of visual perceptual learning is similar for daily, weekly and biweekly training has significant implication for adopting perceptual learning as an option to improve visual functions for clinical patients.
PMCID: PMC3538889  PMID: 23206551
perceptual learning; crowding; letter identification; peripheral vision

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