The role of eye fixation in memory enhancement under stress – An eye tracking study

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Abstract

In a stressful situation, attention is shifted to potentially relevant stimuli. Recent studies from our laboratory revealed that participants stressed perform superior in a recognition task involving objects of the stressful episode. In order to characterize the role of a stress induced alteration in visual exploration, the present study investigated whether participants experiencing a laboratory social stress situation differ in their fixation from participants of a control group. Further, we aimed at shedding light on the relation of fixation behaviour with obtained memory measures. We randomly assigned 32 male and 31 female participants to a control or a stress condition consisting of the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a public speaking paradigm causing social evaluative threat. In an established ‘friendly’ control condition (f-TSST) participants talk to a friendly committee. During both conditions, the committee members used ten office items (central objects) while another ten objects were present without being used (peripheral objects). Participants wore eye tracking glasses recording their fixations. On the next day, participants performed free recall and recognition tasks involving the objects present the day before. Stressed participants showed enhanced memory for central objects, accompanied by longer fixation times and larger fixation amounts on these objects. Contrasting this, fixation towards the committee faces showed the reversed pattern; here, control participants exhibited longer fixations. Fixation indices and memory measures were, however, not correlated with each other. Psychosocial stress is associated with altered fixation behaviour. Longer fixation on objects related to the stressful situation may reflect enhanced encoding, whereas diminished face fixation suggests gaze avoidance of aversive, socially threatening stimuli. Modified visual exploration should be considered in future stress research, in particular when focussing on memory for a stressful episode.

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