Research Suggests Eyes Reflect Upcoming Decisions

Rockville, Md. (March 26, 2020)—New research suggests that eye movements may come before hand movements in actions that require a two-step decision-making process. The study is published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurophysiology (JNP).

Most people are faced with real-life opportunities to make choices that involve both senses and motor skills every day. For example, when a squirrel runs across the street, a driver must decide to avoid hitting it. This sequence of events involves first making the decision to brake the car and then putting the motor skills to work to execute the action. Visually guided decision-making in movement tasks—how the eyes and the body work together—is a research area that is lacking.

A research team from the University of British Columbia in Canada explored whether eye movements are the consequence of decision-making, coming after the decision is made, or if they reflect making a choice and occur before the decision is made.

Young adult volunteers with an average age of 19 participated in a tracking activity in which an animated ball moved across a computer screen. The ball was randomly programmed to either pass through or miss a strike box on the screen. The volunteers were instructed to track the ball with their eyes, decide whether the ball would pass or miss the box and intercept a pass by touching the screen with the index finger of their dominant hand (“go” action). If the volunteers thought the ball would miss the box, they did not touch the screen (“no-go” action). The ball was launched from several different angles and appeared on the screen for very brief periods of time, ranging from 100 to 300 milliseconds.

The researchers measured the volunteers’ eye position signals—including speed and acceleration of eye movements—with a video tracking system. Sensors attached to the dominant index finger recorded finger position throughout the trial. Eye tracking captured both “smooth pursuit” movements—where the eyes closely follow a moving object—and the quicker, jerky motions associated with activities such as reading, called saccades. The researchers also analyzed the interception decision accuracy of the volunteers’ “go” and “no-go” actions (whether or not to move their hand).

The research team found that “eye movements distinguished go/no-go actions early in the decision process, before the hand first started to move.” Smooth pursuit movements in particular corresponded with the accuracy of the decision to intercept the ball or not and the timing of when to begin the interception. “This finding emphasizes that eye movements may indicate go/no-go actions before hand movements are executed,” the researchers wrote. “Because eye movements occur naturally and spontaneously, this may open new avenues for studying decision-making processes in real-world scenarios.”

Read the full article, “Eye movements as a readout of sensorimotor decision processes,” published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurophysiology (JNP).                                                                                             

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: To schedule an interview with a member of the research team, please contact the APS Communications Office or call 301.634.7314. Find more research highlights in our News Room.

Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. Established in 1887, the American Physiological Society (APS) was the first U.S. society in the biomedical sciences field. The Society represents 9,000 members and publishes 15 peer-reviewed journals with a worldwide readership.

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