Effects of pupillary responses to luminance and attention on visual spatial discrimination

J Vis. 2018 Oct 1;18(11):6. doi: 10.1167/18.11.6.


The optic quality of the eyes is, at least in part, determined by pupil size. Large pupils let more light enter the eyes, but degrade the point spread function, and thus the spatial resolution that can be achieved (Campbell & Gregory, 1960). In natural conditions, the pupil is mainly driven by the luminance (and possibly the color and contrast) at the gazed location, but is also modulated by attention and cognitive factors. Whether changes in eyes' optics related to pupil size modulation by luminance and attention impacts visual processing was assessed in two experiments. In Experiment 1, we measured pupil size using a constantly visible display made of four disks with different luminance levels, with no other task than fixating the disks in succession. The results confirmed that pupil size depends on the luminance of the gazed stimulus. Experiment 2, using similar settings as Experiment 1, used a two-interval forced-choice design to test whether discriminating high spatial frequencies that requires covert attention to parafoveal stimuli is better during the fixation of bright disks that entails a small pupil size, and hence better eyes' optics, as compared to fixating dark disks that entails a large pupil size, and hence poorer eyes' optics. As in Experiment 1, we observed large modulations of pupil size depending on the luminance of the gazed stimulus, but pupil dynamics was more variable, with marked pupil dilation during stimulus encoding, presumably because the demanding spatial frequency discrimination task engaged attention. However, discrimination performance and mean pupil size were not correlated. Despite this lack of correlation, the slopes of pupil dilation during stimulus encoding were correlated to performance, while the slopes of pupil dilation during decision-making were not. We discuss these results regarding the possible functional roles of pupil size modulations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Light*
  • Male
  • Optics and Photonics
  • Pupil / physiology*
  • Reflex, Pupillary / radiation effects*
  • Spatial Processing / physiology*
  • Vision, Ocular
  • Young Adult