Gestalt perception and the decline of global precedence in older subjects.
Staudinger MR., Fink GR., Mackay CE., Lux S.
Our visual world is hierarchically organized. Hierarchical processing is frequently investigated using Navon figures (large letters made up of smaller ones). In young adults, many studies reported faster reaction times (RT) to target letters presented at the global level [i.e., global precedence (GP)]. Furthermore, an age-related decline of this GP has been reported. We tested whether deficits in perceptual grouping via Gestalt laws (Gestalt principles of Proximity and Continuity) might contribute to this decline. In a directed attention task with valid and invalid cues, 20 young (mean age 22) and 20 older (mean age 57) male subjects had to indicate whether a target letter appeared at the global or local level of a Navon figure. The number of local letters forming the global figure was modulated in 5 steps. As expected, during valid trials, young adults showed a GP that linearly increased with increasing numbers of local letters (i.e., GP enhancement). This suggests that GP is related to perceptual grouping via Gestalt laws. By contrast, the group of older subjects demonstrated no precedence effect in RT and a non-significant trend toward GP in error rates (ER). No GP enhancement with an increasing number of local elements was observed. Exploratory analysis revealed that individual insensitivity to the modulation of matrix density, as revealed by a lack of global RT acceleration, was restricted to subjects that showed an overall local precedence (LP). Because older subjects tended to more frequently display an insensitivity to matrix modulation and an LP, we conclude that deficient Gestalt detection as indicated by non-enhanced global RT might contribute to the RT-related decline of GP with age.