Most people don't spend much time pondering the diameter of their pupils. The fact is that we don't have much control over our pupils, the openings in the center of the irises that allow light into the eyes. Short of chemical interventions—such as the eyedrops ophthalmologists use to widen their patients' pupils for eye exams—the only way to dilate or shrink the pupils is by changing the amount of available light. Switch off the lamp, and your pupils will widen to take in more light. Step out into the sun, and your pupils will narrow.
Mechanical though they may be, the workings of pupils are allowing researchers to explore the parallels between imagination and perception. In a recent series of experiments, University of Oslo cognitive neuroscientists Bruno Laeng and Unni Sulutvedt began by displaying triangles of varying brightness on a computer screen while monitoring the pupils of the study volunteers. The subjects' pupils widened for dark shapes and narrowed for bright ones, as expected. Next, participants were instructed to simply imagine the same triangles. Remarkably, their pupils constricted or dilated as if they had been staring at the actual shapes. Laeng and Sulutvedt saw the same pattern when they asked subjects to imagine more complex scenes, such as a sunny sky or a dark room.
Imagination is usually thought of as “a private and subjective experience, which is not accompanied by strongly felt or visible physiological changes,” Laeng says. But the new findings, published in Psychological Science, challenge that idea. The study suggests that imagination and perception may rely on a similar set of neural processes: when you picture a dimly lit restaurant, your brain and body respond, at least to some degree, as if you were in that restaurant.
The new experiments complement popular methods for studying consciousness by providing visual stimulation to participants without their awareness. Joel Pearson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, explains that mental imagery research takes the opposite approach, allowing subjects conscious awareness of a mental image without the accompanying stimulation. Perhaps by combining the two approaches, scientists can better understand how consciousness works.