Modeling pupil responses to rapid sequential events

Rachel N. Denison, Jacob A. Parker, Marisa Carrasco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pupil size is an easily accessible, noninvasive online indicator of various perceptual and cognitive processes. Pupil measurements have the potential to reveal continuous processing dynamics throughout an experimental trial, including anticipatory responses. However, the relatively sluggish (~2 s) response dynamics of pupil dilation make it challenging to connect changes in pupil size to events occurring close together in time. Researchers have used models to link changes in pupil size to specific trial events, but such methods have not been systematically evaluated. Here we developed and evaluated a general linear model (GLM) pipeline that estimates pupillary responses to multiple rapid events within an experimental trial. We evaluated the modeling approach using a sample dataset in which multiple sequential stimuli were presented within 2-s trials. We found: (1) Model fits improved when the pupil impulse response function (PuRF) was fit for each observer. PuRFs varied substantially across individuals but were consistent for each individual. (2) Model fits also improved when pupil responses were not assumed to occur simultaneously with their associated trial events, but could have non-zero latencies. For example, pupil responses could anticipate predictable trial events. (3) Parameter recovery confirmed the validity of the fitting procedures, and we quantified the reliability of the parameter estimates for our sample dataset. (4) A cognitive task manipulation modulated pupil response amplitude. We provide our pupil analysis pipeline as open-source software (Pupil Response Estimation Toolbox: PRET) to facilitate the estimation of pupil responses and the evaluation of the estimates in other datasets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1991-2007
Number of pages17
JournalBehavior Research Methods
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • Model
  • PRET
  • Pupil response function
  • Pupillometry
  • Temporal attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology


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