The role of spatial frequency channels in letter identification

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How we see is today explained by physical optics and retinal transduction, followed by feature detection, in the cortex, by a bank of parallel independent spatial-frequency-selective channels. It is assumed that the observer uses whichever channels are best for the task at hand. Our current results demand a revision of this framework: Observers are not free to choose which channels they use. We used critical-band masking to characterize the channels mediating identification of broadband signals: letters in a wide range of fonts (Sloan, Bookman, Künstler, Yung), alphabets (Roman and Chinese), and sizes (0.1-55°). We also tested sinewave and squarewave gratings. Masking always revealed a single channel, 1.6±0.7 octaves wide, with a center frequency that depends on letter size and alphabet. We define an alphabet's stroke frequency as the average number of lines crossed by a slice through a letter, divided by the letter width. For sharp-edged (i.e. broadband) signals, we find that stroke frequency completely determines channel frequency, independent of alphabet, font, and size. Moreover, even though observers have multiple channels, they always use the same channel for the same signals, even after hundreds of trials, regardless of whether the noise is low-pass, high-pass, or all-pass. This shows that observers identify letters through a single channel that is selected bottom-up, by the signal, not top-down by the observer. We thought shape would be processed similarly at all sizes. Bandlimited signals conform more to this expectation than do broadband signals. Here, we characterize processing by channel frequency. For sinewave gratings, as expected, channel frequency equals sinewave frequency fchannel = f. For bandpass-filtered letters, channel frequency is proportional to center frequency fchannel ∝fcenter (log-log slope 1) when size is varied and the band (c/letter) is fixed, but channel frequency is less than proportional to center frequency fchannel∝fcenter2/3 (log-log slope 2/3) when the band is varied and size is fixed. Finally, our main result, for sharp-edged (i.e. broadband) letters and squarewaves, channel frequency depends solely on stroke frequency, fchannel/10c/deg = fstroke/10c/deg2/3, with a log-log slope of 2/3. Thus, large letters (and coarse squarewaves) are identified by their edges; small letters (and fine squarewaves) are identified by their gross strokes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1165-1184
Number of pages20
JournalVision research
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2002


  • Channels
  • Contrast sensitivity function
  • Identification
  • Letters
  • Low-frequency cut
  • Masking
  • Most sensitive channel
  • Noise additivity
  • Object recognition
  • Scale dependence
  • Scale invariance
  • Sinewaves
  • Spatial frequency
  • Spatial vision
  • Squarewaves

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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