Tracking the allocation of attention using human pupillary oscillations

Front Psychol. 2013 Dec 10;4:919. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00919. eCollection 2013.


The muscles that control the pupil are richly innervated by the autonomic nervous system. While there are central pathways that drive pupil dilations in relation to arousal, there is no anatomical evidence that cortical centers involved with visual selective attention innervate the pupil. In this study, we show that such connections must exist. Specifically, we demonstrate a novel Pupil Frequency Tagging (PFT) method, where oscillatory changes in stimulus brightness over time are mirrored by pupil constrictions and dilations. We find that the luminance-induced pupil oscillations are enhanced when covert attention is directed to the flicker stimulus and when targets are correctly detected in an attentional tracking task. These results suggest that the amplitudes of pupil responses closely follow the allocation of focal visual attention and the encoding of stimuli. PFT provides a new opportunity to study top-down visual attention itself as well as identifying the pathways and mechanisms that support this unexpected phenomenon.

Keywords: PFT; SSVEP; attention; attentional blink; frequency tagging; oscillations; pupil; tracking.