Monday, March 19, 2012

Science: Pupils get wider when someone is paying attention

I found The pupils are the windows to the mind fascinating:

The pupil is best known for changing size in reaction to light. In a dark room, your pupils open wide to let in more light; as soon as you step outside into the sunlight, the pupils shrink to pinpricks. This keeps the retina at the back of the eye from being overwhelmed by bright light. Something similar happens in response to psychological stimuli, says Bruno Laeng of the University of Oslo, who cowrote the paper with Sylvain Sirois of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and Gustaf Gredebäck of Uppsala University in Sweden. When someone sees something they want to pay closer attention to, the pupil enlarges. It's not clear why this happens, Laeng says. "One idea is that, by essentially enlarging the field of the visual input, it's beneficial to visual exploration," he says.

However it works, psychological scientists can use the fact that people's pupils widen when they see something they're interested in.

Laeng has used pupil size to study people who had damage to the hippocampus, which usually causes very severe amnesia. Normally, if you show one of these patients a series of pictures, then take a short break, then show them another series of pictures, they don't know which ones they've seen before and which ones are new. But Laeng measured patients' pupils while they did this test and found that the patients did actually respond differently to the pictures they had seen before. "In a way, this is good news, because it shows that some of the brains of these patients, unknown to themselves, is actually capable of making the distinction," he says.

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