Summary: A new study reveals the brain utilizes eye movements to help recall vivid memories of past experiences.

Source: Baycrest.

Even though you are not aware of it, your eyes play a role in searing an image into your brain, long after you have stopped looking at it.

Through brain imaging, Baycrest scientists have found evidence that the brain uses eye movements to help people recall vivid moments from the past, paving the way for the development of visual tests that could alert doctors earlier about those at risk for neurodegenerative illnesses.

The study, recently published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, found that when people create a detailed mental image in their head, not only do their eyes move in the same way as when they first saw the picture, their brains showed a similar pattern of activity.

“There’s a theory that when you remember something, it’s like the brain is putting together a puzzle and reconstructing the experience of that moment from separate parts,” says Dr. Bradley Buchsbaum, senior author on the study, scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “The pattern of eye movements is like the blueprint that the brain uses to piece different parts of the memory together so that we experience it as a whole.”

This is the first time a direct connection has been established between a person’s eye movements and patterns of brain activity, which follows up on previous studies linking what we see to how we remember.

In the study, researchers used a mathematical algorithm to analyze the brain scans and eye movements of 16 young adults between the ages of 20 to 28. Individuals were shown a set of 14 distinct images for a few seconds each. They were asked to remember as many details of the picture as possible so they could visualize it later on. Participants were then cued to mentally visualize the images within an empty rectangular box shown on the screen. Brain imaging and eye-tracking technology simultaneously captured the brain activity and eye movements of the participants as they memorized and remembered the pictures.

The study, led by RRI graduate student Michael Bone, discovered the same pattern of eye movements and brain activation, but compressed, when the picture was memorized and then remembered.

“This is likely because when we recall a memory, it’s a condensed version of the original experience. For example, if a marriage proposal took two minutes, when we picture this memory in our head, we re-experience it in a much shorter timeframe,” says Dr. Buchsbaum. “The eye movements are like a short-hand code that your brain runs through to trigger the memory.”

By looking at the patterns of eye movement and brain activity, researchers were able to identify which image a person was remembering during the task.

As next steps, the study will explore distinguishing whether the eye movements lead the brain to reactivate the memory or vice versa. Having a greater understanding of this causal relationship could inform the creation of a diagnostic tool using the eyes to catch when a person’s memory is headed down an unhealthy path, adds Dr. Buchsbaum.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: Research for this study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and conducted in collaboration with RRI senior scientist Dr. Jennifer Ryan, post-doctoral fellow Marie St.-Laurent and RRI research assistants Christa Dang and Douglas McQuiggan.

With additional funding, researchers could tackle improving the accessibility and user-friendliness of an eye-tracking cognitive test.

Source: Jonathan MacIndoe – Baycrest
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research in Cerebral Cortex.

Cite This Article

Baycrest “Can’t Get an Image Out of Your Head? Your Eyes Are Helping to Keep it There.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 14 February 2018.

Baycrest (2018, February 14). Can’t Get an Image Out of Your Head? Your Eyes Are Helping to Keep it There. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 14, 2018 from

Baycrest “Can’t Get an Image Out of Your Head? Your Eyes Are Helping to Keep it There.” (accessed February 14, 2018).


Eye Movement Reinstatement and Neural Reactivation During Mental Imagery

Half a century ago, Donald Hebb posited that mental imagery is a constructive process that emulates perception. Specifically, Hebb claimed that visual imagery results from the reactivation of neural activity associated with viewing images. He also argued that neural reactivation and imagery benefit from the re-enactment of eye movement patterns that first occurred at viewing (fixation reinstatement). To investigate these claims, we applied multivariate pattern analyses to functional MRI (fMRI) and eye tracking data collected while healthy human participants repeatedly viewed and visualized complex images. We observed that the specificity of neural reactivation correlated positively with vivid imagery and with memory for stimulus image details. Moreover, neural reactivation correlated positively with fixation reinstatement, meaning that image-specific eye movements accompanied image-specific patterns of brain activity during visualization. These findings support the conception of mental imagery as a simulation of perception, and provide evidence consistent with the supportive role of eye movement in neural reactivation.

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