Research Article: Eye behavior does not adapt to expected visual distraction during internally directed cognition

Date Published: September 28, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sonja Annerer-Walcher, Christof Körner, Mathias Benedek, Michael B. Steinborn.


When focused on a specific internal task like calculating a multiplication in mind we are able to ignore sensory distraction. This may be achieved by effective perceptual decoupling during internally directed cognition. The present study investigated whether decoupling from external events during internally directed cognition represents an active shielding mechanism that adapts to expected external distraction or a passive/automatic shielding mechanism that is independent of external distraction. Participants performed multiplications in mind (e.g. 26 x 7), a task that required to turn attention inward as soon as the problem was encoded. At the beginning of a block of trials, participants were informed whether or not distractors could appear during the calculation period, thereby potentially allowing them to prepare for the distractors. We tracked their eye behavior as markers of perceptual decoupling and workload. Turning attention inward to calculate the multiplication elicited evidence of perceptual decoupling for five of six eye parameters: blink rate, saccade and microsaccade rate increased, gaze was less constricted to the center, and pupils dilated. Although participants perceived blocks with distractors as more challenging, performance and eye behavior markers of both perceptual decoupling and workload were unaffected. This result supports the notion of perceptual decoupling as an automatic mechanism: focusing inward induces desensitization to external events independent of external distraction.

Partial Text

Imagine thinking about a catchy first sentence for your manuscript while sitting in a park on a sunny summer afternoon. People walk by and are engaged in discussions, kids are playing with water balloons. The amount of irrelevant external distraction is immense. Yet, we seem to be very effective at ignoring everything around us when deeply focused on a mental task [1]. Several cognitive models (which we review next) assume that this is achieved by decoupling from sensory stimulation during internally directed cognition. It is still unclear whether perceptual decoupling represents an automatic mechanism that solely depends on internal task characteristics, or whether it actively adjusts to external distraction. The current study is the first to manipulate the expectation of visual distraction during an internal task to investigate whether perceptual decoupling prepares for visual distraction.

Turning attention inward to calculate multiplications in mind led to a characteristic response in five out of six eye parameters. People blinked more often, made more saccades and microsaccades, restricted their gaze less to the center, and their pupils dilated. Whether distractors were to be expected or not during the calculation of multiplications had no effect on this perceptual decoupling of eye behavior. In the following, we discuss these findings in the context of available models of IDC and EDC.




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