The human task-evoked pupillary response function is linear: Implications for baseline response scaling in pupillometry

  • Jamie ReillyEmail author
  • Alexandra Kelly
  • Seung Hwan Kim
  • Savannah Jett
  • Bonnie Zuckerman


The human task-evoked pupillary response provides a sensitive physiological index of the intensity and online resource demands of numerous cognitive processes (e.g., memory retrieval, problem solving, or target detection). Cognitive pupillometry is a well-established technique that relies upon precise measurement of these subtle response functions. Baseline variability of pupil diameter is a complex artifact that typically necessitates mathematical correction. A methodological paradox within pupillometry is that linear and nonlinear forms of baseline scaling both remain accepted baseline correction techniques, despite yielding highly disparate results. The task-evoked pupillary response (TEPR) could potentially scale nonlinearly, similar to autonomic functions such as heart rate, in which the amplitude of an evoked response diminishes as the baseline rises. Alternatively, the TEPR could scale similarly to the cortical hemodynamic response, as a linear function that is independent of its baseline. However, the TEPR cannot scale both linearly and nonlinearly. Our aim was to adjudicate between linear and nonlinear scaling of human TEPR. We manipulated baseline pupil size by modulating the illuminance in the testing room as participants heard abrupt pure-tone transitions (Exp. 1) or visually monitored word lists (Exp. 2). Phasic pupillary responses scaled according to a linear function across all lighting (dark, mid, bright) and task (tones, words) conditions, demonstrating that the TEPR is independent of its baseline amplitude. We discuss methodological implications and identify a need to reevaluate past pupillometry studies.


Pupillometry Executive functioning Arousal Cognitive load Psychophysics 


Author note

We thank our reviewers, editor, and Timothy Shipley for showing us the light.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jamie Reilly
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Alexandra Kelly
    • 1
    • 2
  • Seung Hwan Kim
    • 3
  • Savannah Jett
    • 4
  • Bonnie Zuckerman
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Eleanor M. Saffran Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Communication Sciences and DisordersTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Slavic & Eastern LanguagesBoston CollegeBostonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Linguistics and Cognitive SciencePomona CollegeClaremontUSA

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