Oculomotor behavior during non-visual tasks: The role of visual saliency

Dekel Abeles, Roy Amit, Shlomit Yuval-Greenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background During visual exploration or free-view, gaze positioning is largely determined by the tendency to maximize visual saliency: more salient locations are more likely to be fixated. However, when visual input is completely irrelevant for performance, such as with non-visual tasks, this saliency maximization strategy may be less advantageous and potentially even disruptive for task-performance. Here, we examined whether visual saliency remains a strong driving force in determining gaze positions even in non-visual tasks. We tested three alternative hypotheses: a) That saliency is disadvantageous for non-visual tasks and therefore gaze would tend to shift away from it and towards non-salient locations; b) That saliency is irrelevant during non-visual tasks and therefore gaze would not be directed towards it but also not away-from it; c) That saliency maximization is a strong behavioral drive that would prevail even during non-visual tasks. Methods Gaze position was monitored as participants performed visual or non-visual tasks while they were presented with complex or simple images. The effect of attentional demands was examined by comparing an easy non-visual task with a more difficult one. Results Exploratory behavior was evident, regardless of task difficulty, even when the task was non-visual and the visual input was entirely irrelevant. The observed exploratory behaviors included a strong tendency to fixate salient locations, central fixation bias and a gradual reduction in saliency for later fixations. These exploratory behaviors were spatially similar to those of an explicit visual exploration task but they were, nevertheless, attenuated. Temporal differences were also found: in the non-visual task there were longer fixations and later first fixations than in the visual task, reflecting slower visual sampling in this task. Conclusion We conclude that in the presence of a rich visual environment, visual exploration is evident even when there is no explicit instruction to explore. Compared to visually motivated tasks, exploration in non-visual tasks follows similar selection mechanisms, but occurs at a lower rate. This is consistent with the view that the non-visual task is the equivalent of a dual-task: it combines the instructed task with an uninstructed, perhaps even mandatory, exploratory behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0198242
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2018


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