A pair of Beckman Institute researchers has discovered that by directing the eye movements of test subjects they were able to affect the participants' ability to solve a problem, demonstrating that eye movement is not just a function of cognition but can actually affect our cognitive processes.
Previous research (Grant and Spivey, 2003) has shown a relationship between eye movements and problem-solving but Psychology Professor Alejandro Lleras, a member of the Human Perception and Performance group, and Ph.D. candidate Laura Thomas have taken that work in a groundbreaking direction.
They report in the current (Aug., 2007) issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that by occasionally guiding the eye movements of participants with a tracking task unrelated to the problem, they were able to "substantially affect their chances of problem-solving success" to the point where those groups outperformed every control group at solving the problem. These results, they conclude, demonstrate that "it is now clear that not only do eye movements reflect what we are thinking, they can also influence how we think."
The previous work of Grant and Spivey suggested a relationship between eye movements and problem-solving by showing that certain patterns of eye movement were reflected as participants got closer to solving the problem.
"We said we are going to do the opposite: rather than see what the relationship is between the eye movement and the solution right before you solve the problem, we said we're going to see if we can force people to think differently and, without conscious awareness, move their eyes in different ways and influence their thought patterns," Lleras said.
As reported in their paper, titled Moving eyes and moving thought: On the spatial compatibility between eye movements and cognition, the researchers were able to manipulate eye movement in order to guide participants to the problem's solution.
"So it's not just the case that people who are going to get the solution are moving their eyes in a given way, but that the people who might not have gotten the solution, if you have them move their eyes in that way, then they actually can solve it," Thomas said.
In addition to providing insights into problem-solving, the results have implications for how psychologists think about cognition.
"Grant and Spivey found a link between eye movements and problem solving, but they could not directly show that the former can precede or affect the latter," Thomas added. "They couldn't go further than saying cognition affects eye movement pattern. They're very close to it but they cannot argue more than that. We went a step further and said eye movements are actually influencing cognition and this is the way to prove it."
The tracking task used in the study - which had participants identify a digit among letters in different locations within the problem diagram - did not itself help them solve the problem. In fact, the researchers report, "many believed the tracking task was a purposeful distraction from the radiation problem."
"The theory that we're working with right now is the idea that when people do these sorts of movements it actually starts them on what's called a perceptual simulation," Lleras said. "The idea is that you basically use the same structures in the brain when you are thinking about doing something that you would actually use when you do that task. So we start them on this movement and that starts this simulation of how to solve the problem."
Lleras and Thomas have been invited to give a talk on the subject at the Association for Psychological Science meeting this spring.