Changes in pupil size at constant light levels reflect the activity of neuromodulatory brainstem centers that control global brain state. These endogenously driven pupil dynamics can be synchronized with cognitive acts. For example, the pupil dilates during the spontaneous switches of perception of a constant sensory input in bistable perceptual illusions. It is unknown whether this pupil dilation only indicates the occurrence of perceptual switches, or also their content. Here, we measured pupil diameter in human subjects reporting the subjective disappearance and re-appearance of a physically constant visual target surrounded by a moving pattern ('motion-induced blindness' illusion). We show that the pupil dilates during the perceptual switches in the illusion and a stimulus-evoked 'replay' of that illusion. Critically, the switch-related pupil dilation encodes perceptual content, with larger amplitude for disappearance than re-appearance. This difference in pupil response amplitude enables prediction of the type of report (disappearance vs. re-appearance) on individual switches (receiver-operating characteristic: 61%). The amplitude difference is independent of the relative durations of target-visible and target-invisible intervals and subjects' overt behavioral report of the perceptual switches. Further, we show that pupil dilation during the replay also scales with the level of surprise about the timing of switches, but there is no evidence for an interaction between the effects of surprise and perceptual content on the pupil response. Taken together, our results suggest that pupil-linked brain systems track both the content of, and surprise about, perceptual events.
Keywords: brain state; human; perceptual bistability; perceptual decision-making; pupillometry.
© 2015 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.