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J Vis. 2007 Apr 3;7(6):2.

On the effective number of tracked trajectories in normal human vision.

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Department of Optometry, University of Bradford, Bradford, UK.


Z. W. Pylyshyn and R. W. Storm (1988) have shown that human observers can accurately track four to five items at a time. However, when a threshold paradigm is used, observers are unable to track more than a single trajectory accurately (S. P. Tripathy & B. T. Barrett, 2004). This difference between the two studies is examined systematically using substantially suprathreshold stimuli. The stimuli consisted of one (Experiment 1) or more (Experiments 2 and 3) bilinear target trajectories embedded among several linear distractor trajectories. The target trajectories deviated clockwise (CW) or counterclockwise (CCW) (by 19 degrees, 38 degrees, or 76 degrees in Experiments 1 and 2 and by 19 degrees, 38 degrees, or 57 degrees in Experiment 3), and observers reported the direction of deviation. From the percentage of correct responses, the "effective" number of tracked trajectories was estimated for each experimental condition. The total number of trajectories in the stimulus and the number of deviating trajectories had only a small effect on the effective number of tracked trajectories; the effective number tracked was primarily influenced by the angle of deviation of the targets and ranged from four to five trajectories for a +/-76 degrees deviation to only one to two trajectories for a +/-19 degrees deviation, regardless of whether the different magnitudes of deviation were blocked (Experiment 2) or interleaved (Experiment 3). Simple hypotheses based on "averaging of orientations," "preallocation of resources," or pop-out, crowding, or masking of the target trajectories are unlikely to explain the relationship between the effective number tracked and the angle of deviation of the target trajectories. This study reconciles the difference between the studies cited above in terms of the number of trajectories that can be tracked at a time.

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