Spatio-temporal properties of letter crowding

Susana T L Chung
Journal of Vision 2016, 16 (6): 8
Crowding between adjacent letters has been investigated primarily as a spatial effect. The purpose of this study was to investigate the spatio-temporal properties of letter crowding. Specifically, we examined the systematic changes in the degradation effects in letter identification performance when adjacent letters were presented with a temporal asynchrony, as a function of letter separation and between the fovea and the periphery. We measured proportion-correct performance for identifying the middle target letter in strings of three lowercase letters at the fovea and 10° in the inferior visual field, for a range of center-to-center letter separations and a range of stimulus onset asynchronies (SOA) between the target and flanking letters (positive SOAs: target preceded flankers). As expected, the accuracy for identifying the target letters reduces with decreases in letter separation. This crowding effect shows a strong dependency on SOAs, such that crowding is maximal between 0 and ∼100 ms (depending on conditions) and diminishes for larger SOAs (positive or negative). Maximal crowding does not require the target and flanking letters to physically coexist for the entire presentation duration. Most importantly, crowding can be minimized even for closely spaced letters if there is a large temporal asynchrony between the target and flankers. The reliance of letter identification performance on SOAs and how it changes with letter separations imply that the crowding effect can be traded between space and time. Our findings are consistent with the notion that crowding should be considered as a spatio-temporal, and not simply a spatial, effect.

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