The pupil responds to digital information, not just light.

We have always known that the pupil dilates or contracts depending on the amount of light that reaches the eye. It also expands under the influence of certain medications or drugs, or in emotionally intense situations. But recently, researchers have discovered that the size of the pupil can also be adapted to digital information, that is, the number of objects observed.

In their paper, the researchers show that the more objects there are in a scene, the larger the pupil, so as to better observe the set of objects. And if you’re still wondering why this is fascinating: According to the new study, the eye acts completely autonomously (as it does light), meaning that a form of digital communication between the brain and the eye takes place. autonomously and unconsciously. . Seen like this, it’s hard not to be dazzled by this discovery …

« […] Digital information is intrinsically linked to perception “

For their study, the researchers, from the University of Sydney (Australia) and the University of Florence (Italy), looked at the pupil size of 16 participants while looking at various sets of dots. In some of the images, the dots were connected to each other, creating the illusion that there were fewer objects. In such configurations, the size of the pupil decreased.

“This result shows that digital information is intrinsically linked to perception,” explained psychologist and neuroscientist Elisa Castaldi from the University of Florence in a statement. “This could have practical and important implications. For example, this ability is compromised in dyscalculia, which is a dysfunction in learning mathematics, so our experience could be useful to identify this condition at an early stage in very young children ”.

Diagram showing how the pupil reacts to different objects and patterns. © Castaldi et al./Nature Communications (2021)

The researchers used this point-linking trick to change the perception of the number without having to directly modify the number of points. They asked the participants to look at dot images (black or white) passively, without paying particular attention to the total number of objects and without having a specific task to perform. The results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

In humans, the ability to evaluate numbers seems to appear from the first hours of life. This is an intrinsic ability to evaluate numbers, and the dilation of our pupils would be a response to this phenomenon. According to previous studies, the origin of this reaction is linked to the “survival” instinct. This is because most species are believed to have a “number sense” that allows them to instinctively estimate the number of enemies in the wild, find food, and quickly estimate the number, and so on.

A foundation of evolution

“When we look around us, we spontaneously perceive the shape, size, movement and color of a scene,” explains psychologist David Burr of the University of Sydney, also affiliated with the University of Florence. “In the same spontaneous way, we perceive the amount of objects that are in front of us. This ability, shared with most other animals, is fundamental to evolution: it immediately reveals significant quantities, such as the number of apples on a tree or the number of enemies that attack ”.

Previous research had indicated that pupil size was not only affected by light – visual illusions involving brightness, size, and context also have an effect, supporting the idea that this pupil dilation is at least controlled. partially by signals higher up in the brain.

Researchers now want to better understand why this happens and determine other factors that can affect pupil size, such as the movement the eye needs to absorb all the information in a scene. The study also reveals that our eyes seem to be more sensitive to the amount of things we look at than to how they are spaced or arranged, which is another reaction that can be analyzed in future studies.

“Recent research carried out in our laboratory shows that pupil size is also regulated by cognitive and perceptual factors,” explains physiologist Paola Binda, from the University of Pisa, Italy.

Nature Communications

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