Spacing, Not Size, Matters in Visual Recognition, NYU Researchers Find

You might think that the farthest distance at which you can hold a book and still read it quickly is determined by the size of the letters. However, New York University neuroscientists have concluded that it’s the spacing between letters, not their size, that matters. In general, objects, such as letters, can be recognized only if they are separated by enough space, the “critical spacing.” Objects closer than that spacing are “crowded” and cannot be identified. A broad review of this crowding phenomenon, appearing in the latest issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows that this critical spacing is the same for all objects, including letters, animals, and furniture.

According to the authors, NYU Professor of Psychology and Neural Science Denis Pelli and Katharine Tillman, an undergraduate researcher in NYU’s College of Arts and Science, the critical spacing is a key parameter in the brain’s cortical architecture underlying object recognition.

“The idea that spacing limits object recognition could not be simpler, but it has been very hard to accept because it displaces a firmly held belief that visibility is limited by size, not spacing,” Pelli and Tillman wrote.

The human visual system recognizes a simple object by detecting and then combining its features (lines or edges). However, this process is impaired when, in seeking to identify an object in clutter, your brain combines features over too large an area surrounding the object, failing to isolate the object’s features from those of the clutter. This usually happens when the cluttered object is in peripheral vision (the corn 500

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