The Role of Blinks, Microsaccades and their Retinal Consequences in Bistable Motion Perception

Eye-related movements such as blinks and microsaccades are modulated during bistable perceptual tasks. However, if they play an active role during internal perceptual switches is not known. We conducted two experiments involving an ambiguous plaid stimulus, wherein participants were asked to continuously report their percept, which could consist of either unidirectional coherent or bidirectional component movement. Our main results show that blinks and microsaccades did not facilitate perceptual switches. On the contrary, a reduction in eye movements preceded the perceptual switch. Blanks, on the other hand, thought to mimic the retinal consequences of a blink, consistently led to a switch. Through the timing of the blank-introduced perceptual change, we were able to estimate the delay between the internal switch and the response. This delay further allowed us to evaluate that the reduction in blink probability co-occurred with the internal perceptual switch. Additionally, our results indicate that distinct internal processes underlie the switch to coherent vs. component percept. Blanks exclusively facilitated a switch to the coherent percept, and only the switch to coherent percept was followed by an increase in blink rate. In a second study, we largely replicated the findings and included a microsaccade analysis. Microsaccades only showed a weak relation with perceptual switches, but their direction was correlated with the perceived motion direction. Nevertheless, our data suggests an interaction between microsaccades and blinks by showing that microsaccades were differently modulated around blinks compared with blanks. This study shows that a reduction in eye movements precedes internal perceptual switches indicating that the rate of blinks can set the stage for a reinterpretation of sensory input. While a perceptual switch based on changed sensory input usually leads to an increase in blink rate, such an increase was only present after the perceptual switch to coherent motion but absent after the switch to component percept. This provides evidence of different underlying mechanism or internal consequence of the two perceptual switches and suggests that blinks can uncover differences in internal percept-related processes that are not evident from the percept itself.

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