Ocular smooth pursuit and fixation are typically viewed as separate systems, yet there is evidence that the brainstem fixation system inhibits pursuit. Here we present behavioral evidence that the fixation system modulates pursuit behavior outside of conscious awareness. Human observers (male and female) either pursued a small spot that translated across a screen, or fixated it as it remained stationary. As shown previously, pursuit trials potentiated the oculomotor system, producing anticipatory eye velocity on the next trial before the target moved that mimicked the stimulus-driven velocity. Randomly interleaving fixation trials reduced anticipatory pursuit, suggesting that a potentiated fixation system interacted with pursuit to suppress eye velocity in upcoming pursuit trials. The reduction was not due to passive decay of the potentiated pursuit signal because interleaving “blank” trials in which no target appeared did not reduce anticipatory pursuit. Interspersed short fixation trials reduced anticipation on long pursuit trials, suggesting that fixation potentiation was stronger than pursuit potentiation. Furthermore, adding more pursuit trials to a block did not restore anticipatory pursuit, suggesting that fixation potentiation was not overridden by certainty of an imminent pursuit trial but rather was immune to conscious intervention. To directly test whether cognition can override fixation suppression, we alternated pursuit and fixation trials to perfectly specify trial identity. Still, anticipatory pursuit did not rise above that observed with an equal number of random fixation trials. The results suggest that potentiated fixation circuitry interacts with pursuit circuitry at a subconscious level to inhibit pursuit. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT When an object moves, we view it with smooth pursuit eye movements. When an object is stationary, we view it with fixational eye movements. Pursuit and fixation are historically regarded as controlled by different neural circuitry, and alternating between invoking them is thought to be guided by a conscious decision. However, our results show that pursuit is actively suppressed by prior fixation of a stationary object. This suppression is involuntary, and cannot be avoided even if observers are certain that the object will move. The results suggest that the neural fixation circuitry is potentiated by engaging stationary objects, and interacts with pursuit outside of conscious awareness.
Watamaniuk, S. N.,
& Heinen, S. J.
(2017). A Subconscious Interaction Between Fixation and Anticipatory Pursuit. Journal of Neuroscience, 37 (47), 11424-11430.