Emotion modulates eye movement patterns and subsequent memory for the gist and details of movie scenes

Ramanathan Subramanian, Divya Shankar, Nicu Sebe, David Melcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A basic question in vision research regards where people look in complex scenes and how this influences their performance in various tasks. Previous studies with static images have demonstrated a close link between where people look and what they remember. Here, we examined the pattern of eye movements when participants watched neutral and emotional clips from Hollywood-style movies. Participants answered multiple-choice memory questions concerning visual and auditory scene details immediately upon viewing 1-min-long neutral or emotional movie clips. Fixations were more narrowly focused for emotional clips, and immediate memory for object details was worse compared to matched neutral scenes, implying preferential attention to emotional events. Although we found the expected correlation between where people looked and what they remembered for neutral clips, this relationship broke down for emotional clips. When participants were subsequently presented with key frames (static images) extracted from the movie clips such that presentation duration of the target objects (TOs) corresponding to the multiple-choice questions was matched and the earlier questions were repeated, more fixations were observed on the TOs, and memory performance also improved significantly, confirming that emotion modulates the relationship between gaze position and memory performance. Finally, in a long-term memory test, old/new recognition performance was significantly better for emotional scenes as compared to neutral scenes. Overall, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that emotional content draws eye fixations and strengthens memory for the scene gist while weakening encoding of peripheral scene details.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of vision
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2014


  • Attention
  • Emotional movie clips
  • Eye movements
  • Long-term memory
  • Short-term memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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