Spatial attention, preview, and popout: which factors influence critical spacing in crowded displays?

J Vis. 2007 Feb 14;7(2):7.1-23. doi: 10.1167/7.2.7.


Crowding refers to the phenomenon in which nearby distractors impede target processing. This effect is reduced as target-distractor distance increases, and it is eliminated entirely at a distance that is labeled the critical spacing point. Attention, distractor preview, and popout are each known to facilitate processing in crowded displays. Eight experiments examined whether this is accomplished via a reduction in critical spacing. Attention was manipulated via spatial cueing, whereby a peripheral cue elicited a stimulus-driven shift of attention. Distractor preview was examined by manipulating whether the crowding distractors were presented prior to or simultaneous with the target. Popout was examined by manipulating whether there was a salient color difference between the target and distractors. As demonstrated in previous studies, we found robust benefits of spatial cueing, preview, and popout in crowded displays. However, although spatial cueing led to robust improvements in target discrimination, there was no reduction in critical spacing for attended stimuli. By contrast, both preview and popout caused large reductions in critical spacing. These disparate results indicate that attention improves target discrimination in crowded displays in a qualitatively different manner than do the other factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Color
  • Cues
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Humans
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Perceptual Masking*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*