Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 252–269

Pupil diameter tracks changes in control state predicted by the adaptive gain theory of locus coeruleus function


  • Mark S. Gilzenrat
    • Princeton University
    • Cognitive Psychology Unit, Institute for Psychological ResearchLeiden University
  • Marieke Jepma
    • Cognitive Psychology Unit, Institute for Psychological ResearchLeiden University
  • Jonathan D. Cohen
    • Princeton University

DOI: 10.3758/CABN.10.2.252

Cite this article as:
Gilzenrat, M.S., Nieuwenhuis, S., Jepma, M. et al. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience (2010) 10: 252. doi:10.3758/CABN.10.2.252


An important dimension of cognitive control is the adaptive regulation of the balance between exploitation (pursuing known sources of reward) and exploration (seeking new ones) in response to changes in task utility. Recent studies have suggested that the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system may play an important role in this function and that pupil diameter can be used to index locus coeruleus activity. On the basis of this, we reasoned that pupil diameter may correlate closely with control state and associated changes in behavior. Specifically, we predicted that increases in baseline pupil diameter would be associated with decreases in task utility and disengagement from the task (exploration), whereas reduced baseline diameter (but increases in task-evoked dilations) would be associated with task engagement (exploitation). Findings in three experiments were consistent with these predictions, suggesting that pupillometry may be useful as an index of both control state and, indirectly, locus coeruleus function.

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© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2010