I'm happy to write that I have just received notice that my most recent manuscript submission has been accepted and is now in press:
Harrison, W. J., Retell, J. D., Remington, R. W., and Mattingley, J. B. (In press). Visual crowding at a distance during predictive remapping. Current Biology.
In my last post, I had a little demonstration of "visual crowding", the phenomenon where an object in peripheral vision becomes extremely difficult to identify when it is surrounded by visual clutter. You can also experience crowding by fixating the blue dot in part (a) of the figure below. Can you identify the Y buried amongst the Es? You might find that the parts of the letters appeared all jumbled. This is crowding. In part (b), fixate inside the blue dotted circle, and you'll find it simple to identify the Y on the right side of the figure because it's not crowded. In my previous paper, my co-authors and I showed that the deleterious effects of crowding (e.g. panel (a)) are reduced in the brief moments just prior to a "saccadic" eye movement toward the crowded object. That is, objects at the goal of the eye movement become easier to identify even before the eyes begin to move.
The main finding of this new Current Biology paper is that, under specific conditions, we get the opposite result: just prior to a saccade, an object in peripheral vision that is free from visual clutter, and therefore easy to identify, can be crowded by visual clutter quite distant from the object. This "crowding from a distance" occurs because of predictive remapping. Predictive remapping is a theory which suggests, just before an eye movement is made, the visual system predicts where visual objects will fall on the retina when the eye movement is complete. Similar predictions are made within our motor systems: when you plan to grab a cup of coffee on your desk, you plan to move your hand, and you have an expectation - a prediction - about the outcome of the plan (presumably to bring your hand to the cup). You can then compare the actual outcome of the movement with the prediction made before the movement to check if the movement achieved its goal. The same goes for movements of the eyes, but the outcome of the eye movement is new visual input.
In our study, we had people make a saccade to a specific location so that we knew where their eyes would move, and we thus had a good idea about the internal prediction regarding where things would fall on the retina following the eye movement. For example, in part (b) of the figure above, the observer would start by fixating within the blue dotted circle in the centre of the display. As shown by the orange arrow, they would then have to make a saccade (a fast eye movement) to the green dot at the far right. After they moved their eyes, observers had to report the identity of a letter presented briefly just before the eye movement began. In the case of the example, the letter Y would appear and disappear before the observer moved their eyes. The presentation of this letter probe was timed so that it appeared during the period of predictive remapping.
Because we knew the direction of the eye movement and the position of the probe, we also knew the predicted position of the probe. The predicted position of the probe letter is represented by the red arrow in the figure. That is, before an observer's eyes moved, we knew where their visual system predicted the probe would appear on the retina following the eye movement. At this location, the probe's "remapped location", we presented visual clutter, the letter Es in this case. The positioning of the stimuli resulted in the probe becoming difficult to identify during, and only during, the period of predictive remapping, hence the title of the paper: "Visual crowding at a distance during the period of predictive remapping."
The spatial arrangement of stimuli and timing of their presentation needs to be controlled tightly relative to a viewer's eye movement, so it's not feasible for me to create a demonstration of the effect. In the coming days (weeks?) I'll update this post with a figure from the paper that schematises the logic and layout of stimuli. UPDATE: figure added.
More details and a link to the paper to come when it goes online.
If you're interested in reading more about remapping, the following articles are good places to start:
If you're interested in reading more about visual crowding, try: