Both a Gauge and a Filter: Cognitive Modulations of Pupil Size

Front Neurol. 2019 Jan 22:9:1190. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2018.01190. eCollection 2018.


Over 50 years of research have established that cognitive processes influence pupil size. This has led to the widespread use of pupil size as a peripheral measure of cortical processing in psychology and neuroscience. However, the function of cortical control over the pupil remains poorly understood. Why does visual attention change the pupil light reflex? Why do mental effort and surprise cause pupil dilation? Here, we consider these functional questions as we review and synthesize two literatures on cognitive effects on the pupil: how cognition affects pupil light response and how cognition affects pupil size under constant luminance. We propose that cognition may have co-opted control of the pupil in order to filter incoming visual information to optimize it for particular goals. This could complement other cortical mechanisms through which cognition shapes visual perception.

Keywords: attention; decision-making; exploration; pupil light reflex; pupil light response (PLR); pupil size; visual perception.

Publication types

  • Review