Sensory cortical mechanisms combine auditory or visual features into perceived objects. This is difficult in noisy or cluttered environments. Knowing that individuals vary greatly in their susceptibility to clutter, we wondered whether there might be a relation between an individual’s auditory and visual susceptibilities to clutter. In auditory masking, background sound makes spoken words unrecognizable. When masking arises due to interference at central auditory processing stages, beyond the cochlea, it is called informational masking. A strikingly similar phenomenon in vision, called visual crowding, occurs when nearby clutter makes a target object unrecognizable, despite being resolved at the retina. We here compare susceptibilities to auditory informational masking and visual crowding in the same participants. Surprisingly, across participants, we find a negative correlation (R = –0.7) between susceptibility to informational masking and crowding: Participants who have low susceptibility to auditory clutter tend to have high susceptibility to visual clutter, and vice versa. This reveals a tradeoff in the brain between auditory and visual processing.
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