Moving Eyes and Moving Thought: On the Spatial Compatibility between Eye Movements and Cognition

By Thomas, Laura E.; Lleras, Alejandro | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Moving Eyes and Moving Thought: On the Spatial Compatibility between Eye Movements and Cognition


Thomas, Laura E., Lleras, Alejandro, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Grant and Spivey (2003) proposed that eye movement trajectories can influence spatial reasoning by way of an implicit eye-movement-to-cognition link. We tested this proposal and investigated the nature of this link by continuously monitoring eye movements and asking participants to perform a problem-solving task under free-viewing conditions while occasionally guiding their eye movements (via an unrelated tracking task), either in a pattern related to the problem's solution or in unrelated patterns. Although participants reported that they were not aware of any relationship between the tracking task and the problem, those who moved their eyes in a pattern related to the problem's solution were the most successful problem solvers. Our results support the existence of an implicit compatibility between spatial cognition and the eye movement patterns that people use to examine a scene.

For over 30 years, researchers have used eyetracking techniques to gain insight into cognitive processing. The examination of eye fixations and eye movements during diagram-based problem solving has given us a better understanding of problem-solving strategies in a wide variety of tasks such as mental rotation, insight problem solving, and inference making (see, e.g., Just & Carpenter, 1985; Knoblich, Ohlsson, & Raney, 2001; Lenhart, 1983). Although researchers have long investigated how cognitive processes influence eye movements, only recently have they begun to look into the reciprocal relationship and ask how eye movements might influence cognitive processes.

A recent study by Grant and Spivey (2003) began to address the question of whether eye movements can direct cognitive processing during a problem-solving task using a classic insight problem1: Karl Duncker's (1945) radiation problem. Figure IA presents a diagram of this problem. In their study, Grant and Spivey showed participants a similar diagram and gave them the following instructions (diagram and instructions adapted by Grant & Spivey, 2003, from Duncker, 1945):

Given a human being with an inoperable stomach tumor, and lasers which destroy organic tissue at sufficient intensity, how can one cure the person with these lasers and, at the same time, avoid harming the healthy tissue that surrounds the tumor?

The correct solution to this problem entails firing multiple low-intensity lasers from different locations around the tumor so that they converge at the tumor. Although each individual laser is too weak to damage the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor, the combined intensity of multiple lasers that meet at the tumor is enough to destroy it. In mis problem, the relevant areas are the inner black oval representing the tumor, the outer black oval representing the skin and the healthy tissue it encompasses, and the white area beyond the skin representing the outside area from which the multiple lasers must fire.

In their first experiment, Grant and Spivey (2003) recorded the eye movements of participants attempting to solve the radiation problem. They found that participants who successfully solved the problem within 10 min without hints spent more time looking at the skin area than did participants unable to solve the problem without hints. On the basis of this finding, Grant and Spivey concluded that the skin area was critical for inferring the problem's solution. In a second experiment, in which eye movements were not recorded, they attempted to direct a group of participants' attention to this critical area by presenting them with a problem diagram in which the skin pulsed. Participants who viewed a skin-pulsing diagram had a higher rate of problem-solving success than did those who viewed a static diagram, or those who viewed a diagram in which a noncritical area, the tumor, pulsed.

What was special about the skin area in Grant and Spivey's (2003) experiments? The researchers suggested that increasing the time that participants spent viewing the skin area also increased triangular in-and-out eye movement patterns, in which participants looked to the outside area, moved their eyes across the skin and into the tumor area, and then moved back out again to another outside area. …

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