An escape from crowding

Jeremy Freeman, Denis G. Pelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Crowding occurs when nearby flankers jumble the appearance of a target object, making it hard to identify. Crowding is feature integration over an inappropriately large region. What determines the size of that region? According to bottom-up proposals, the size is that of an anatomically determined isolation field. According to top-down proposals, the size is that of the spotlight of attention. Intriligator and Cavanagh (2001) proposed the latter, but we show that their conclusion rests on an implausible assumption. Here we investigate the role of attention in crowding using the change blindness paradigm. We measure capacity for widely and narrowly spaced letters during a change detection task, both with and without an interstimulus cue. We find that standard crowding manipulations - reducing spacing and adding flankers - severely impair uncued change detection but have no effect on cued change detection. Because crowded letters look less familiar, we must use longer internal descriptions (less compact representations) to remember them. Thus, fewer fit into working memory. The memory limit does not apply to the cued condition because the observer need remember only the cued letter. Cued performance escapes the effects of crowding, as predicted by a top-down account. However, our most parsimonious account of the results is bottom-up: Cued change detection is so easy that the observer can tolerate feature degradation and letter distortion, making the observer immune to crowding. The change detection task enhances the classic partial report paradigm by making the test easier (same/different instead of identifying one of many possible targets), which increases its sensitivity, so it can reveal degraded memory traces.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number22
JournalJournal of vision
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 26 2007


  • Attention
  • Change blindness
  • Change detection
  • Crowding
  • Feature integration
  • Object recognition
  • Partial report
  • Segmentation
  • Visual memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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