Microsaccades Distinguish Looking From Seeing

Understanding our visual world requires both looking and seeing. Dissociation of these processes can result in the phenomenon of inattentional blindness or ‘looking without seeing‘. Concomitant errors in applied settings can be serious, and even deadly. Current visual data analysis cannot differentiate between just ‘looking‘ and actual processing of visual information, i.e., ‘seeing‘. Differentiation may be possible through the examination of microsaccades; the involuntary, small-magnitude saccadic eye movements that occur during processed visual fixation. Recent work has suggested that microsaccades are post-attentional biosignals, potentially modulated by task. Specifically, microsaccade rates decrease with increased mental task demand, and increase with growing visual task difficulty. Such findings imply that there are fundamental differences in microsaccadic activity between visual and nonvisual tasks. To evaluate this proposition, we used a high-speed eye tracker to record participants in looking for differences between two images or, doing mental arithmetic, or both tasks in combination. Results showed that microsaccade rate was significantly increased in conditions that require high visual attention, and decreased in conditions that require less visual attention. The results support microsaccadic rate reflecting visual attention, and level of visual information processing. A measure that reflects to what extent and how an operator is processing visual information represents a critical step for the application of sophisticated visual assessment to real world tasks.

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