FIVE QUESTIONS: Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience & Behavior Barbara Juhasz

Q1: What drove you to explore reading and eye tracking?

BARBARA JUHASZ: At Binghamton University I had the opportunity to participate in a project examining eye movements and reading, conducted in the laboratory of Albrecht Inhoff. I had always been interested in literature and languages and was excited that my love of both psychology and reading could be combined. I was also fascinated by the eye–tracker. It is still amazing to me that by recording where a person looks on a computer screen, we can infer so much about what is happening in his or her mind. It is an accurate, non–invasive way to examine cognitive processing. I continued this research under the supervision of Keith Rayner in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Q2: You have found interesting differences between decisive and indecisive people, right?

BJ: Yes. You are referring to a study we conducted with Andrea Patalano, associate professor of psychology, and Joanna Dicke ’10. By asking students to make course selections based on a variety of information presented about each, we found through use of the eye tracker that decisive people quickly narrow down their decisions to a particular attribute, while indecisive people take in all the information. Interestingly, indecisive people spent more time overall looking at nothing, that is, the blank cells in the grid. This may allow them to ruminate or reframe their choices before making a decision.

Q3: What do eye movements reveal about how people read?

BJ: Readers alternate between brief pauses, called fixations, and rapid eye movements, called saccades. Fixations last between 200–250 milliseconds (on average) and these are where information is gathered during reading. Our visual system shuts down during saccades, so although we have the impression that our eyes glide smoothly across the page, reading is more like a slideshow.

Fixation durations are very sensitive to the difficulty of the reading material. We look longer at harder words and phrases. Individuals with disabilities have longer fixations as well.

Q4: How have eye–tracking machines and their software evolved in the past 10 years?

BJ: Eye–tracking machines used to be terribly complex. The first eye–tracker I learned how to use took at least one month to learn and had tons of knobs and mechanical parts which broke quite frequently—usually when you needed data for some important event! Luckily, there are now several companies that make much more user–friendly eye–tracking equipment. I can now train an undergraduate research assistant to use the eye–tracker in less than a day.

The trick with conducting eye movement research is not in learning the equipment, but in learning how to design a good experiment and how to interpret your results. Eye–tracking experiments can take a long time to run, and you do not want to be left with data that is not interpretable.

Q5: What is the interesting link between Wesleyan and eye–tracking that you’d like to share?

BJ: When I arrived at Wesleyan, I explored the psychology department’s history. I discovered that Raymond Dodge helped to run the first psychology laboratory at Wesleyan in 1898, when it was housed in the Philosophy Department. This was exciting to me as an eye movement researcher, as Raymond Dodge is considered to be a pioneer of eye movement recording. He developed his own eye–tracking devices to record eye movements during reading and during rotational movements. Thus, much of the early work examining eye movements experimentally was actually conducted at Wesleyan.