Grouping of contextual elements that affect vernier thresholds
To reveal the mechanisms of spatial interference in the fovea, we examined the capacity of a variety of lateral flanking configurations to interfere with alignment thresholds of a vertical vernier. A single line on each side of the vernier, at the optimal separation of 2-3 arcmin, raises thresholds threefold or more and masks most effectively when its length equals that of the vernier. For an array of equal lines whose length differs from that of the vernier, masking is reduced but not when vernier and flanks have the same length. The reduction for shorter and longer flanks can be reversed by inserting a gap in the row of flanks. By comparing the masking effect of arrays of mixed line lengths, we show that when a pair of flanks, which by itself masks strongly, becomes a component of a coherent contextual configuration, it loses much of its effectiveness to interact. Observers' ranking of the conspicuity of the vernier test pattern among the flanking elements is negatively correlated with the threshold elevation. We conclude that clustering of contextual patterns influences their capacity to mask. Discrimination of a target deteriorates when the target is grouped within an array of surrounding elements.