The drifting gaze

A new study reveals that ocular drifts, a type of unconscious movement our eyes make when fixed on something, are not random but respond to the visual world around us.

Image credit: v2osk (CC0)

Vision is a highly complex, active process. As we observe and interact with the world around us, we constantly use eye movements to capture the visual information we need. In fact, our eyes continue to make tiny, unconscious movements even when we try to fix our gaze on something.

There are two main types of tiny eye movements. The first kind, so called microsaccades, are fast, microscopic flicks that happen every second or half-second. The other kind, termed drift, is a slower, gradual motion that takes place between microsaccades, or at any time when other eye movements are not happening. However, we know far less about drifts than about any other eye movements: both the reason why they occur and the brain mechanisms controlling them are still unclear.

Many scientists think that drifts are largely random movements, without any set direction. However, eye drifts do sometimes align with other behaviours – for example, they can help compensate for small, subtle head movements – suggesting that drifts may not be completely random after all. Malevich, Buonocore and Hafed therefore set out to test the hypothesis that eye drifts could, under the right circumstances, in fact be highly directed movements.

These experiments used precise sensors to track eye movements in macaque monkeys, which had been trained to fix their gaze on images or shapes (stimuli) presented on a screen. This revealed that presenting new stimuli, even for a few thousandths of a second, could repeatedly trigger drifts. This reaction also happened quickly, starting less than one hundredth of a second after presentation of the stimulus.

Further tests, using different images, revealed that the drifts were not only simply reacting to any new stimuli but also appeared to be a partially selective response to specific types of images. These tended to have larger features and less fine detail. For example, a picture of a landscape with large swaths of sky or hilltops would much more reliably trigger the eye drifts than a finely detailed checkerboard pattern, with many small squares alternating between black and white. These results suggested that drifts, far from being random movements, could be another tool for the brain to process visual information.

This work sheds new light on the potential role of eye movements in vision, and adds another layer of complexity to the question of how we see. Malevich et al. hope that this study will inspire further research into the brain mechanisms behind ocular drifts.