I was delighted to welcome Prof Tim Hodgson from Lincoln University to Durham to give a seminar on his recent work exploring the development of oculomotor control in young children. His talk drew on a series of experiments conducted at the Lincoln Summer Scientist event where Tim and his team examined oculomotor behaviours in children as young as 3! The surprising result (to me at least!) was that very young children seemed to experience a ‘sticky fixation’, such that their gaze remained locked at fixation when a target jumped from fixation to the periphery, or when gaze cues were used to direct saccades. Gaze cues automatically activate saccade programmes in adults (e.g. Kuhn & Kingstone 2009), so the fact that these young children don’t reflexively follow gaze cues suggested to me that perhaps gaze-cueing is a learned, rather than instinctual behaviour (Cole Smith & Atkinson 2015). More provocatively, Tim also argued that even though the children’s eyes were ‘stuck’ at fixation, they were nevertheless able to covertly orient into the periphery. I harrumphed my approval at this little bit of premotor theory bashing but was mindful it was based on the observation that children were able to accurately report the appearance of a peripheral target, even though they failed to execute a saccade towards it. As Bob Kentridge suggested, perhaps there was overactive fixation which prevents the release of a saccade but not the programming of the saccade. All in all it was a fascinating and thought-provoking seminar. We then retired to the Vic for refreshments and further discussion.
Kuhn, G., & Kingstone, A. (2009). Look away! Eyes and arrows engage oculomotor responses automatically. Attention Perception & Psychophysics, 71(2), 314-327. doi:10.3758/app.71.2.314
Cole, G.G., Smith, D.T. & Atkinson, M.A. (2015). Mental state attribution and the gaze cueing effect. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 77(4): 1105-1115.