Cicchini, G. M., D’Errico, G., & Burr, D. C.
Crowding results from optimal integration of visual targets with contextual information.
Nature Communications, 13(1)
Crowding is the inability to recognize an object in clutter, usually considered a fundamental low-level bottleneck to object recognition. Here we advance and test an alternative idea, that crowding, like predictive phenomena such as serial dependence, results from optimizing strategies that exploit redundancies in natural scenes. This notion leads to several testable predictions: crowding should be greatest for unreliable targets and reliable flankers; crowding-induced biases should be maximal when target and flankers have similar orientations, falling off for differences around 20°; flanker interference should be associated with higher precision in orientation judgements, leading to lower overall error rate; effects should be maximal when the orientation of the target is near that of the average of the flankers, rather than to that of individual flankers. Each of these predictions were supported, and could be simulated with ideal-observer models that maximize performance. The results suggest that while crowding can affect object recognition, it may be better understood not as a processing bottleneck, but as a consequence of efficient exploitation of the spatial redundancies of the natural world.