How workload and availability of spatial reference shape eye movement coupling in visuospatial working memory

Cognition. 2024 Aug:249:105815. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2024.105815. Epub 2024 May 17.


Eyes are active in memory recall and visual imagination, yet our grasp of the underlying qualities and factors of these internally coupled eye movements is limited. To explore this, we studied 50 participants, examining how workload, spatial reference availability, and imagined movement direction influence internal coupling of eye movements. We designed a visuospatial working memory task in which participants mentally moved a black patch along a path within a matrix and each trial involved one step along this path (presented via speakers: up, down, left, or right). We varied workload by adjusting matrix size (3 × 3 vs. 5 × 5), manipulated availability of a spatial frame of reference by presenting either a blank screen (requiring participants to rely solely on their mental representation of the matrix) or spatial reference in the form of an empty matrix, and contrasted active task performance to two control conditions involving only active or passive listening. Our findings show that eye movements consistently matched the imagined movement of the patch in the matrix, not driven solely by auditory or semantic cues. While workload influenced pupil diameter, perceived demand, and performance, it had no observable impact on internal coupling. The availability of spatial reference enhanced coupling of eye movements, leading more frequent, precise, and resilient saccades against noise and bias. The absence of workload effects on coupled saccades in our study, in combination with the relatively high degree of coupling observed even in the invisible matrix condition, indicates that eye movements align with shifts in attention across both visually and internally represented information. This suggests that coupled eye movements are not merely strategic efforts to reduce workload, but rather a natural response to where attention is directed.

Keywords: Embodiment; Eye behavior; Internal attentional focus; Internal coupling; Internally directed cognition; Overt and covert attention; Saccades; Visuospatial working memory.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Eye Movements* / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term* / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Space Perception* / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult