Oculomotor and Cognitive Control of Eye Movements in Reading: Evidence from Mindless Reading

By Luke, Steven G.; Henderson, John M. | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, August 2013 | Go to article overview

Oculomotor and Cognitive Control of Eye Movements in Reading: Evidence from Mindless Reading


Luke, Steven G., Henderson, John M., Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Abstract In the present study, we investigated the influence of cognitive factors on eye-movement behaviors in reading. Participants performed two tasks: a normal-reading task, as well as a mindless-reading task in which letters were replaced with unreadable block shapes. This mindless-reading task served as an oculomotor control condition, simulating the visual aspects of reading but removing higher-level linguistic processing. Fixation durations, word skipping, and some regressions were influenced by cognitive factors, whereas eye movements within words appeared to be less open to cognitive control. Implications for models of eye-movement control in reading are discussed.

Keywords Cognitive control · Attentional control · Eye movements · Reading

During reading, the eyes move about four times per second, pausing in between to take in information. This pattern of saccades and fixations is also present when performing other visual-cognitive tasks, although with some variability in the sizes of movements and the lengths of pauses. Given that eye movements are controlled by the same neural circuitry regardless of task, and that visual acuity limitations impose strong constraints on eye-movement behavior, it is not surprising that the eyes should behave in a globally similar way in different situations. Indeed, many eye-movement behaviors observed during reading appear to be oculomotor phenomena that occur independently of linguistic and other cognitive processes (Henderson & Luke, 2012; Nuthmann, Engbert, & Kliegl, 2007).

On the other hand, it is also abundantly clear that eye movements are not independent of higher cognitive processes. In reading, eye movements are influenced on a moment-by-moment basis by a variety of linguistic factors, such as word frequency, predictability, and syntactic complexity (Rayner, 1998, 2009). This suggests that the eyes move at least partly in the service of cognitive factors. These contradictory findings-that reading is to some degree both independent of and influenced by higher-order cognitive processes-gives rise to one of the most important questions in reading research: How do the eyes and the mind work together during reading?

This question has inspired a great deal of debate. Early on, the debate was between two competing models of reading: the oculomotor model, which in its strongest form allows for no immediate cognitive influence on individual eye movements (see, e.g., O'Regan, 1990, 1992; O'Regan & Levy-Schoen, 1987), and the processing model, which in its strongest form posits complete moment-by-moment control of eye movements by ongoing cognitive processing (see Just & Carpenter, 1980; Morrison, 1984). Since that time, the debate has moved away from a binary choice between oculomotor and processing models and toward an exploration of the relative contributions of low-level visuomotor factors and higher-level cognitive factors to eye-movement control (Starr & Rayner, 2001). Therefore, modern models of eye-movement control in reading incorporate both influences, although they still differ significantly in the weights given to oculomotor and cognitive factors.

In an attempt to dissociate oculomotor and cognitive influences on reading, researchers have devised a reading-like task, called mindless reading,1 that removes any possibility of language processing. Typically, mindless reading involves replacing all letters in the text with the letter ? (for this reason, mindless reading is sometimes called "z-reading"). Thus, in mindless reading the visuospatial layout (i.e., the length and spacing of words) of the text is preserved, but linguistic (phonological/orthographic, lexical, semantic, syntactic, and discourse) information is removed. Participants are instructed to move their eyes as if they were reading. The idea behind mindless reading is simple: Any differences between normal and mindless reading can be attributed to stronger cognitive control of eye movements in normal reading. …

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