Crowding: a cortical constraint on object recognition

Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2008 Aug;18(4):445-51. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2008.09.008. Epub 2008 Oct 27.


The external world is mapped retinotopically onto the primary visual cortex (V1). We show here that objects in the world, unless they are very dissimilar, can be recognized only if they are sufficiently separated in visual cortex: specifically, in V1, at least 6mm apart in the radial direction (increasing eccentricity) or 1mm apart in the circumferential direction (equal eccentricity). Objects closer together than this critical spacing are perceived as an unidentifiable jumble. This is called 'crowding'. It severely limits visual processing, including speed of reading and searching. The conclusion about visual cortex rests on three findings. First, psychophysically, the necessary 'critical' spacing, in the visual field, is proportional to (roughly half) the eccentricity of the objects. Second, the critical spacing is independent of the size and kind of object. Third, anatomically, the representation of the visual field on the cortical surface is such that the position in V1 (and several other areas) is the logarithm of eccentricity in the visual field. Furthermore, we show that much of this can be accounted for by supposing that each 'combining field', defined by the critical spacing measurements, is implemented by a fixed number of cortical neurons.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Psychophysics / methods
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Visual Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*