Shared attentional control of smooth eye movement and perception

Beena Khurana, Eileen Kowler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Subjects performed a concurrent smooth pursuit and perceptual task to determine whether smooth pursuit eye movements and perception share the same attentional mechanism. Subjects pursued a pair of eccentric rows of moving characters while simultaneously attempting to identify and locate the single numeral in these target rows and the single numeral in a pair of untracked background rows, which moved at a different velocity. Average smooth pursuit gain (eye velocity/target velocity) was 0.7 to 1. Visual search was better for target rows (~ 65% correct) than for background rows (~ 22% correct). Superior search performance for the target was not due to its lower retinal speed: performance on the target was 2-3 times better than on the background when retinal speeds were the same. Superior performance for the pursuit target suggests that smooth eye movements and perception share the same selective attentional mechanism. A shared attentional mechanism was further supported by findings that subjects could not: (1) maintain a stable line of sight on a central stationary point while simultaneously attending to moving rows; and (2) pursue one pair of rows and attend the other, untracked rows. Attempts to attend untracked rows did, however, produce a partial improvement in search performance which was accompanied by only a very slight change in eye velocity. This demonstrates that the effects of decisions about how to apportion attention across the visual field depend on the task. Despite the common selective attentional mechanism, smooth eye movements do not provide accurate external indicators of attention unless the consequences of attentional decisions for performance are determined separately for oculomotor and for perceptual tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1603-1618
Number of pages16
JournalVision Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1987

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


  • Smooth pursuit Smooth eye movement Attention Visual search

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