Oculomotor inhibition covaries with conscious detection

J Neurophysiol. 2016 Sep 1;116(3):1507-1521. doi: 10.1152/jn.00268.2016. Epub 2016 Jul 6.


Saccadic eye movements occur frequently even during attempted fixation, but they halt momentarily when a new stimulus appears. Here, we demonstrate that this rapid, involuntary "oculomotor freezing" reflex is yoked to fluctuations in explicit visual perception. Human observers reported the presence or absence of a brief visual stimulus while we recorded microsaccades, small spontaneous eye movements. We found that microsaccades were reflexively inhibited if and only if the observer reported seeing the stimulus, even when none was present. By applying a novel Bayesian classification technique to patterns of microsaccades on individual trials, we were able to decode the reported state of perception more accurately than the state of the stimulus (present vs. absent). Moreover, explicit perceptual sensitivity and the oculomotor reflex were both susceptible to orientation-specific adaptation. The adaptation effects suggest that the freezing reflex is mediated by signals processed in the visual cortex before reaching oculomotor control centers rather than relying on a direct subcortical route, as some previous research has suggested. We conclude that the reflexive inhibition of microsaccades immediately and inadvertently reveals when the observer becomes aware of a change in the environment. By providing an objective measure of conscious perceptual detection that does not require explicit reports, this finding opens doors to clinical applications and further investigations of perceptual awareness.

Keywords: contrast sensitivity; microsaccades; oculomotor inhibition; perceptual awareness; visual adaptation.