The perceived contrast of a pulsed grating varies markedly with the exposure duration and spatial frequency of the grating. We studied dynamic changes in perceived grating contrast with a pattern-masking paradigm. We measured masking of a brief, localized test pattern (a D6 stimulus, 30 ms in duration) by fixed-contrast cosine grating patterns of varying duration (50–500 ms). The cosine mask pattern had spatial frequency of either 1 or 6 cycles per degree (cpd) at a contrast of 0.3. The D6 test pattern was centered on a light bar of the mask and was either positive peak contrast (same-polarity test and mask) or negative peak contrast (opposite-polarity test and mask). In Experiment 1, the test and mask had simultaneous onset. With a 6-cpd mask, the same-polarity test-threshold elevation versus mask-duration function increases monotonically. For a 1-cpd mask, the same-polarity threshold–mask-duration function is nonmonotonic, with peak masking effect produced by a grating pulse of 80–100 ms. These masking effects are closely congruent with known dynamic contrast effects. With negative tests, masking-duration functions are elevated from same-polarity functions and are essentially similar in shape for 1- and 6-cpd masks. The elevated thresholds suggest inhibitory interaction between ON and OFF pathways, with a similar time course across spatial frequency. In Experiment 2, the D6 test was delayed from mask onset by 33 ms. Positive contrasts only were employed. For 1-cpd stimuli, the delay of test greatly reduced masking at all mask durations and eliminated the nonmonotonic function. This suggests that for low-spatial-frequency patterns, perceived contrast is determined by an early peak component of the neural response. But for 6-cpd stimuli, masking of the delayed test was somewhat greater at all mask durations, consistent with a gradually increasing underlying neural response to the grating. Finally, in Experiment 3, same-polarity masking effects at both spatial frequencies were replicated with negative-contrast test and mask (OFF pathway mediation). This indicates that the ON and OFF pathways have similar response dynamics.
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