Modulation of microsaccade rate by task difficulty revealed through between- and within-trial comparisons
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Microsaccades (MSs) are small eye movements that occur during attempted visual fixation. While most studies concerning MSs focus on their roles in visual processing, some also suggest that the MS rate can be modulated by the amount of mental exertion involved in nonvisual processing. The current study focused on the effects of task difficulty on MS rate in a nonvisual mental arithmetic task. Experiment 1 revealed a general inverse relationship between MS rate and subjective task difficulty. During Experiment 2, three task phases with different requirements were identified: during calculation (between stimulus presentation and response), postcalculation (after reporting an answer), and a control condition (undergoing a matching sequence of events without the need to make a calculation). MS rate was observed to approximately double from the during-calculation phase to the postcalculation phase, and was significantly higher in the control condition compared to postcalculation. Only during calculation was the MS rate generally decreased with greater task difficulty. Our results suggest that the nonvisual cognitive processing can suppress MS rate, and that the extent of such suppression is related to the task difficulty.
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