Crowding by invisible flankers

Cristy Ho, Sing-Hang Cheung
PloS One 2011, 6 (12): e28814

BACKGROUND: 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.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: 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.

CONCLUSIONS: 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.

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