The pupillary light response reflects visual working memory content

Cecília Hustá, Edwin Dalmaijer, Artem Belopolsky, Sebastiaan Mathôt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Recent studies have shown that the pupillary light response (PLR) is modulated by higher cognitive functions, presumably through activity in visual sensory brain areas. Here we use the PLR to test the involvement of sensory areas in visual working memory (VWM). In two experiments, participants memorized either bright or dark stimuli. We found that pupils were smaller when a prestimulus cue indicated that a bright stimulus should be memorized; this reflects a covert shift of attention during encoding of items into VWM. Crucially, we obtained the same result with a poststimulus cue, which shows that internal shifts of attention within VWM affect pupil size as well. Strikingly, the effect of VWM content on pupil size was most pronounced immediately after the poststimulus cue, and then dissipated. This suggests that a shift of attention within VWM momentarily activates an "active" memory representation, but that this representation quickly transforms into a "hidden" state that does not rely on sensory areas. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1522-1528
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention/physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term/physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Pupil/physiology
  • Visual Perception/physiology
  • Young Adult


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