Directing voluntary temporal attention increases fixational stability

Rachel N. Denison, Shlomit Yuval-Greenberg, Marisa Carrasco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Our visual input is constantly changing, but not all moments are equally relevant. Visual temporal attention, the prioritization of visual information at specific points in time, increases perceptual sensitivity at behaviorally relevant times. The dynamic processes underlying this increase are unclear. During fixation, humans make small eye movements called microsaccades, and inhibiting microsaccades improves perception of brief stimuli. Here, we investigated whether temporal attention changes the pattern of microsaccades in anticipation of brief stimuli. Human observers (female and male) judged stimuli presented within a short sequence. Observers were given either an informative precue to attend to one of the stimuli, which was likely to be probed, or an uninformative (neutral) precue. We found strong microsaccadic inhibition before the stimulus sequence, likely due to its predictable onset. Critically, this anticipatory inhibition was stronger when the first target in the sequence (T1) was precued (task-relevant) than when the precue was uninformative. Moreover, the timing of the last microsaccade before T1 and the first microsaccade after T1 shifted such that both occurred earlier when T1 was precued than when the precue was uninformative. Finally, the timing of the nearest pre-and post-T1 microsaccades affected task performance. Directing voluntary temporal attention therefore affects microsaccades, helping to stabilize fixation at the most relevant moments over and above the effect of predictability. Just as saccading to a relevant stimulus can be an overt correlate of the allocation of spatial attention, precisely timed gaze stabilization can be an overt correlate of the allocation of temporal attention. Significance Statement We pay attention at moments in time when a relevant event is likely to occur. Such temporal attention improves our visual perception, but how it does so is not well understood. Here, we discovered a new behavioral correlate of voluntary, or goal-directed, temporal attention. We found that the pattern of small fixational eye movements called microsaccades changes around behaviorally relevant moments in a way that stabilizes the position of the eyes. Microsaccades during a brief visual stimulus can impair perception of that stimulus. Therefore, such fixation stabilization may contribute to the improvement of visual perception at attended times. This link suggests that, in addition to cortical areas, subcortical areas mediating eye movements may be recruited with temporal attention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-363
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 9 2019


  • Eye movements
  • Microsaccades
  • Oculomotor
  • Temporal attention
  • Visual perception
  • Voluntary attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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