Covert shifts of attention can account for the functional role of “eye movements to nothing”

Published in: Memory & Cognition, Volume 46, Issue 2, 230-243

“When trying to remember verbal information from memory, people look at spatial locations that have been associated with visual stimuli during encoding, even when the visual stimuli are no longer present. It has been shown that such “eye movements to nothing” can influence retrieval performance for verbal information, but the mechanism underlying this functional relationship is unclear. More precisely, covert in comparison to overt shifts of attention could be sufficient to elicit the observed differences in retrieval performance. To test if covert shifts of attention explain the functional role of the looking-at-nothing phenomenon, we asked participants to remember verbal information that had been associated with a spatial location during an encoding phase. Additionally, during the retrieval phase, all participants solved an unrelated visual tracking task that appeared in either an associated (congruent) or an incongruent spatial location. Half the participants were instructed to look at the tracking task, half to shift their attention covertly (while keeping the eyes fixed). In two experiments, we found that memory retrieval depended on the location to which participants shifted their attention covertly. Thus, covert shifts of attention seem to be sufficient to cause differences in retrieval performance. The results extend the literature on the relationship between visuospatial attention, eye movements, and verbal memory retrieval and provide deep insights into the nature of the looking-at-nothing phenomenon.”

Written by: Agnes Scholz, Anja Klichowicz, Josef F. Krems
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