Crowding is unlike ordinary masking: Distinguishing feature integration from detection

Denis G. Pelli, Melanie Palomares, Najib J. Majaj

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A letter in the peripheral visual field is much harder to identify in the presence of nearby letters. This is "crowding." Both crowding and ordinary masking are special cases of "masking," which, in general, refers to any effect of a "mask" pattern on the discriminability of a signal. Here we characterize crowding, and propose a diagnostic test to distinguish it from ordinary masking. In ordinary masking, the signal disappears. In crowding, it remains visible, but is ambiguous, jumbled with its neighbors. Masks are usually effective only if they overlap the signal, but the crowding effect extends over a large region. The width of that region is proportional to signal eccentricity from the fovea and independent of signal size, mask size, mask contrast, signal and mask font, and number of masks. At 4 deg eccentricity, the threshold contrast for identification of a 0.32 deg signal letter is elevated (up to six-fold) by mask letters anywhere in a 2.3 deg region, 7 times wider than the signal. In ordinary masking, threshold contrast rises as a power function of mask contrast, with a shallow log-log slope of 0.5 to 1, whereas, in crowding, threshold is a sigmoidal function of mask contrast, with a steep log-log slope of 2 at close spacing. Most remarkably, although the threshold elevation decreases exponentially with spacing, the threshold and saturation contrasts of crowding are independent of spacing. Finally, ordinary masking is similar for detection and identification, but crowding occurs only for identification, not detection. More precisely, crowding occurs only in tasks that cannot be done based on a single detection by coarsely coded feature detectors. These results (and observers' introspections) suggest that ordinary masking blocks feature detection, so the signal disappears, while crowding (like "illusory conjunction") is excessive feature integration - detected features are integrated over an inappropriately large area because there are no smaller integration fields - so the integrated signal is ambiguous, jumbled with the mask. In illusory conjunction, observers see an object that is not there made up of features that are. A survey of the illusory conjunction literature finds that most of the illusory conjunction results are consistent with the spatial crowding described here, which depends on spatial proximity, independent of time pressure. The rest seem to arise through a distinct phenomenon that one might call "temporal crowding," which depends on time pressure ("overloading attention"), independent of spatial proximity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12
Pages (from-to)1136-1169
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of vision
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 30 2004


  • Critical spacing
  • Crowding
  • Feature integration
  • Illusory conjuction
  • Integration field
  • Isolation field
  • Letter identification
  • Masking
  • Object recognition
  • Peripheral vision
  • Second-order mechanisms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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