Pupillometry signatures of sustained attention and working memory

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2022 Nov;84(8):2472-2482. doi: 10.3758/s13414-022-02557-5. Epub 2022 Sep 22.


There exists an intricate relationship between attention and working memory. Recent work has further established that attention and working memory fluctuate synchronously, by tightly interleaving sustained attention and working memory tasks. This work has raised many open questions about physiological signatures underlying these behavioral fluctuations. Across two experiments, we explore pupil dynamics using real-time triggering in conjunction with an interleaved sustained attention and working memory task. In Experiment 1, we use behavioral real-time triggering and replicate recent findings from our lab (deBettencourt et al., 2019) that sustained attention fluctuates concurrently with the number of items maintained in working memory. Furthermore, highly attentive moments, detected via behavior, also exhibited larger pupil sizes. In Experiment 2, we develop a novel real-time pupil-triggering technique to track pupil size fluctuations in real time and trigger working memory probes. We show that this pupil triggering procedure reveals differences in sustained attention, as indexed by response time. These experiments reflect methodological advances in real-time triggering and further disentangle the relationship among general arousal, sustained attention, and working memory.

Keywords: Attention; Working memory.

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / physiology
  • Attention* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term* / physiology
  • Pupil / physiology
  • Reaction Time