Crowding, the difficulty in recognizing a letter flanked by other letters, has been explained as a lateral masking effect. The purpose of this study was to examine the spatial-frequency and contrast dependencies of crowding, and to compare them with the properties of pattern masking. In experiment 1, we measured contrast thresholds for identifying the middle letters in strings of three randomly chosen lower-case letters (trigrams), for a range of letter spacings. Letters were digitally filtered using a set of bandpass filters, with peak object spatial frequencies ranging from 0.63 to 10 c/letter. Bandwidth of the filters was 1 octave. Frequencies of the target and flanking letters were the same, or differed by up to 2 octaves. Contrast of the flanking letters was fixed at the maximum value. Testing was conducted at the fovea and 5° eccentricity. We found that crowding exhibits spatial-tuning functions like masking, but with generally broader bandwidths than those for masking. The spatial extent of crowding was found to be about 0.5 deg at the fovea and 2 deg at 5° eccentricity, independent of target letter frequency. In experiment 2, we measured the contrast thresholds for identifying the middle target letters in trigrams for a range of flanking letter contrasts at 5° eccentricity. At low flanker contrast, crowding does not show a facilitatory region, unlike pattern masking. At high flanker contrast, threshold rises with contrast with an exponent of 0.13 - 0.3, lower than corresponding exponents for pattern masking. In experiment 3, we varied the contrast ratio between the flanking letters and the target letters, and found that the magnitude of crowding increases monotonically with contrast ratio. This finding contradicts a prediction based on a grouping explanation for crowding. Our results are consistent with the postulation that crowding and masking may share the same first stage linear filtering process, and perhaps a similar second-stage process, with the additional property that the second-stage process in crowding pools information over a spatial extent that varies with eccentricity.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This study was supported by research grants from the American Federation for Aging Research (grant #98021 to SC) and the National Institutes of Health (EY12810 to SC, EY01728 to DML, EY02934 to GEL). We thank Bosco Tjan for technical assistance. We are grateful to Arthur Bradley, John Foley, Denis Pelli and Bosco Tjan for their helpful discussion.
- Contrast specificity
- Lateral masking
- Pattern masking
- Spatial-frequency specificity