Pupillometry: A Window to the Preconscious?

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2012 Jan;7(1):18-27. doi: 10.1177/1745691611427305. Epub 2012 Jan 5.


The measurement of pupil diameter in psychology (in short, "pupillometry") has just celebrated 50 years. The method established itself after the appearance of three seminal studies (Hess & Polt, 1960, 1964; Kahneman & Beatty, 1966). Since then, the method has continued to play a significant role within the field, and pupillary responses have been successfully used to provide an estimate of the "intensity" of mental activity and of changes in mental states, particularly changes in the allocation of attention and the consolidation of perception. Remarkably, pupillary responses provide a continuous measure regardless of whether the participant is aware of such changes. More recently, research in neuroscience has revealed a tight correlation between the activity of the locus coeruleus (i.e., the "hub" of the noradrenergic system) and pupillary dilation. As we discuss in this short review, these neurophysiological findings provide new important insights to the meaning of pupillary responses for mental activity. Finally, given that pupillary responses can be easily measured in a noninvasive manner, occur from birth, and can occur in the absence of voluntary, conscious processes, they constitute a very promising tool for the study of preverbal (e.g., infants) or nonverbal participants (e.g., animals, neurological patients).

Keywords: attention; consciousness; development; infant; methodology; neuroscience; unconscious/automatic processing.