Pupillometry research has experienced an enormous revival in the last two decades. Here we briefly review the surge of recent studies on task-evoked pupil dilation in the context of cognitive control tasks with the primary aim being to evaluate the feasibility of using pupil dilation as an index of effort exertion, rather than task demand or difficulty. Our review shows that across the three cognitive control domains of updating, switching, and inhibition, increases in task demands typically leads to increases in pupil dilation. Studies show a diverging pattern with respect to the relationship between pupil dilation and performance and we show how an effort account of pupil dilation can provide an explanation of these findings. We also discuss future directions to further corroborate this account in the context of recent theories on cognitive control and effort and their potential neurobiological substrates.
Curiosity is one of the most basic biological drives in both animals and humans, and has been identified as a key motive for learning and discovery. Despite the importance of curiosity and related behaviors, the topic has been largely neglected in human neuroscience; hence little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying curiosity. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate what happens in our brain during the induction and subsequent relief of perceptual curiosity. Our core findings were that (1) the induction of perceptual curiosity, through the presentation of ambiguous visual input, activated the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brain regions sensitive to conflict and arousal; (2) the relief of perceptual curiosity, through visual disambiguation, activated regions of the striatum that have been related to reward processing; and (3) the relief of perceptual curiosity was associated with hippocampal activation and enhanced incidental memory. These findings provide the first demonstration of the neural basis of human perceptual curiosity. Our results provide neurobiological support for a classic psychological theory of curiosity, which holds that curiosity is an aversive condition of increased arousal whose termination is rewarding and facilitates memory.
The conflict-adaptation effect has been observed in several executive-control tasks and is thought to reflect an increase in control, driven by experienced conflict. We hypothesized that if this adaptation originates from the aversive quality of conflict, it would be canceled out by a positive, rewarding event. Subjects performed an arrow flanker task with monetary gain or loss as arbitrary feedback between trials. As predicted, we found a reduction in conflict adaptation for trials in which conflict was followed by monetary gain. The strength of this gain-induced modulation was found to depend on subjects' motivation to pursue reward, as measured by the Behavioral Activation System Drive scale. Our findings demonstrate for the first time that the conflict-adaptation effect can be strongly reduced by reward contexts, suggesting that reward and conflict can compensate for each other's effects, probably via changes in dopamine levels.
Cognitive conflict plays an important role in tuning cognitive control to the situation at hand. On the basis of earlier findings demonstrating emotional modulations of conflict processing, we predicted that affective states may adaptively regulate goal-directed behavior that is driven by conflict. We tested this hypothesis by measuring conflict-driven control adaptations following experimental induction of four different mood states that could be differentiated along the dimensions of arousal and pleasure. After mood states were induced, 91 subjects performed a flanker task, which provided a measure of conflict adaptation. As predicted, pleasure level affected conflict adaptation: Less pleasure was associated with more conflict-driven control. Arousal level did not influence conflict adaptation. This study suggests that affect adaptively regulates cognitive control. Implications for future research and psychopathology are discussed.
Cognitive demands in response conflict paradigms trigger negative affect and avoidance behavior. However, not all response conflict studies show increases in physiological indices of emotional arousal, such as pupil diameter. In contrast to earlier null-results, this study shows for the first time that small (about 0.02 mm) conflict-related pupil dilation can be observed in a Simon task when stimuli do not introduce a light reflex. Results show that response-conflict in Simon trials induces both pupil dilation and reaction-time costs. Moreover, sequential analyses reveal that pupil dilation mirrors the conflict-adaptation pattern observed in reaction time (RT). Although single-trial regression analyses indicated that pupil dilation is likely to reflect more than one process at the same time, in general our findings imply that pupil dilation can be used as an indirect marker of conflict processing.
The late positive potential (LPP) is an event-related potential (ERP) component over visual cortical areas that is modulated by the emotional intensity of a stimulus. However, the functional significance of this neural modulation remains elusive. We conducted two experiments in which we studied the relation between LPP amplitude, subsequent perceptual sensitivity to a non-emotional stimulus (Experiment 1) and visual cortical excitability, as reflected by P1/N1 components evoked by this stimulus (Experiment 2). During the LPP modulation elicited by unpleasant stimuli, perceptual sensitivity was not affected. In contrast, we found some evidence for a decreased N1 amplitude during the LPP modulation, a decreased P1 amplitude on trials with a relatively large LPP, and consistent negative (but non-significant) across-subject correlations between the magnitudes of the LPP modulation and corresponding changes in d-prime or P1/N1 amplitude. The results provide preliminary evidence that the LPP reflects a global inhibition of activity in visual cortex, resulting in the selective survival of activity associated with the processing of the emotional stimulus.
The present study investigated resource allocation, as measured by pupil dilation, in tasks measuring updating (2-Back task), inhibition (Stroop task) and switching (Number Switch task). Because each cognitive control component has unique characteristics, differences in patterns of resource allocation were expected. Pupil and behavioral data from 35 participants were analyzed. In the 2-Back task (requiring correct matching of current stimulus identity at trial p with the stimulus two trials back, p −2) we found that better performance (low total of errors made in the task) was positively correlated to the mean pupil dilation during correctly responding to targets. In the Stroop task, pupil dilation on incongruent trials was higher than those on congruent trials. Incongruent vs. congruent trial pupil dilation differences were positively related to reaction time differences between incongruent and congruent trials. Furthermore, on congruent Stroop trials, pupil dilation was negatively related to reaction times, presumably because more effort allocation paid off in terms of faster responses. In addition, pupil dilation on correctly-responded-to congruent trials predicted a weaker Stroop interference effect in terms of errors, probably because pupil dilation on congruent trials were diagnostic of task motivation, resulting in better performance. In the Number Switch task we found higher pupil dilation in switch as compared to non-switch trials. On the Number Switch task, pupil dilation was not related to performance. We also explored error-related pupil dilation in all tasks. The results provide new insights in the diversity of the cognitive control components in terms of resource allocation as a function of individual differences, task difficulty and error processing.
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