Working Memory Load Predicts Visual Search Efficiency: Evidence from a Novel Pupillary Response Paradigm

Abstract: An observer’s pupil dilates and constricts in response to variables such as ambient and focal luminance, cognitive effort, the emotional stimulus content, and working memory load. The pupil’s memory load response is of particular interest, as it might be used for estimating observers’ memory load while they are performing a complex task, with- out adding an interruptive and confounding memory test to the protocol. One important task in which working memory’s involvement is still being debated is visual search, and indeed a previous experiment by Porter, Troscianko, and Gilchrist (Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 60, 211– 229, 2007) analyzed observers’ pupil sizes during search to study this issue. These authors found that pupil size increased over the course of the search, and they attributed this finding to accumulating working memory load. However, since the pupil response is slow and does not depend on memory load alone, this conclusion is rather speculative. In the present study, we estimated working memory load in visual search during the presentation of intermittent fixation screens, thought to induce a low, stable level of arousal and cognitive effort. Using standard visual search and control tasks, we showed that this paradigm reduces the influence of non- memory-related factors on pupil size. Furthermore, we found an early increase in working memory load to be associated with more efficient search, indicating a significant role of working memory in the search process.