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Psychophysiology. 2017 May;54(5):724-735. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12828. Epub 2017 Jan 27.

Fine-grained versus categorical: Pupil size differentiates between strategies for spatial working memory performance.

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Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.


Pupillometry provides an accessible option to track working memory processes with high temporal resolution. Several studies showed that pupil size increases with the number of items held in working memory; however, no study has explored whether pupil size also reflects the quality of working memory representations. To address this question, we used a spatial working memory task to investigate the relationship of pupil size with spatial precision of responses and indicators of reliance on generalized spatial categories. We asked 30 participants (15 female, aged 19-31) to remember the position of targets presented at various locations along a hidden radial grid. After a delay, participants indicated the remembered location with a high-precision joystick providing a parametric measure of trial-to-trial accuracy. We recorded participants' pupil dilations continuously during task performance. Results showed a significant relation between pupil dilation during preparation/early encoding and the precision of responses, possibly reflecting the attentional resources devoted to memory encoding. In contrast, pupil dilation at late maintenance and response predicted larger shifts of responses toward prototypical locations, possibly reflecting larger reliance on categorical representation. On an intraindividual level, smaller pupil dilations during encoding predicted larger dilations during late maintenance and response. On an interindividual level, participants relying more on categorical representation also produced larger precision errors. The results confirm the link between pupil size and the quality of spatial working memory representation. They suggest compensatory strategies of spatial working memory performance-loss of precise spatial representation likely increases reliance on generalized spatial categories.


Categorical bias; Precision of working memory; Pupillometry; Spatial working memory

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