Targets but not flankers are suppressed in crowding as revealed by EEG frequency tagging
Perception of a visual target can strongly deteriorate in the presence of flanking elements (crowding). For example, adding lines next to a vernier makes vernier offset discrimination difficult. Crowding is often considered a bottleneck of low-level vision, determined by the unavoidable limitations of the early visual system. In accordance with this proposal, neural processing of the flankers should be impaired in crowding as much as that of the target. To test this prediction, we used steady-state visually evoked potentials (ssVEPs) to separate target responses from flanker responses. We presented a vernier target either alone or flanked by lines, which had the same color as the vernier or a different color. Crowding by same-color flankers was stronger than by different-color flankers. Mirroring the behavioral results, ssVEP amplitudes corresponding to the target were higher for different-color flankers than for same-color flankers. Flanker related ssVEPs, however, did not depend on crowding strength. It seems that target, but not flanker processing, is susceptible to crowding. In line with previous results, we suggest that crowding is not caused by low-level interferences but is linked to target-flanker grouping instead.