Eye pupil signals information gain

Alexandre Zénon
Proc. R. Soc. B.. 2019-09-18; 286(1911): 20191593
DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.1593

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In conditions of constant illumination, the eye pupil diameter indexes the modulation of arousal state and responds to a large breadth of cognitive processes, including mental effort, attention, surprise, decision processes, decision biases, value beliefs, uncertainty, volatility, exploitation/exploration trade-off, or learning rate. Here, I propose an information theoretic framework that has the potential to explain the ensemble of these findings as reflecting pupillary response to information processing. In short, updates of the brain’s internal model, quantified formally as the Kullback–Leibler (KL) divergence between prior and posterior beliefs, would be the common denominator to all these instances of pupillary dilation to cognition. I show that stimulus presentation leads to pupillary response that is proportional to the amount of information the stimulus carries about itself and to the quantity of information it provides about other task variables. In the context of decision making, pupil dilation in relation to uncertainty is explained by the wandering of the evidence accumulation process, leading to large summed KL divergences. Finally, pupillary response to mental effort and variations in tonic pupil size are also formalized in terms of information theory. On the basis of this framework, I compare pupillary data from past studies to simple information-theoretic simulations of task designs and show good correspondance with data across studies. The present framework has the potential to unify the large set of results reported on pupillary dilation to cognition and to provide a theory to guide future research.

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