It has long been thought that the eyes index the inner workings of the mind. Consistent with this intuition, empirical research has demonstrated that pupils dilate as a consequence of attentional effort. Recently, Smallwood et al. (2011) demonstrated that pupil dilations not only provide an index of overall attentional effort, but are time-locked to stimulus changes during attention (but not during mind-wandering). This finding suggests that pupil dilations afford a dynamic readout of conscious information processing. However, because stimulus onsets in their study involved shifts in luminance as well as information, they could not determine whether this coupling of stimulus and pupillary dynamics reflected attention to low-level (luminance) or high-level (information) changes. Here, we replicated the methodology and findings of Smallwood et al. (2011) while controlling for luminance changes. When presented with isoluminant digit sequences, participants' pupillary dilations were synchronized with stimulus onsets when attending, but not when mind-wandering. This replicates Smallwood et al. (2011) and clarifies their finding by demonstrating that stimulus-pupil coupling reflects online cognitive processing beyond sensory gain.
Kang, Olivia E.; Huffer, Katherine E.; and Wheatley, Thalia P., "Pupil Dilation Dynamics Track Attention to High-Level Information" (2014). Open Dartmouth: Faculty Open Access Articles. 3136.