The rhythm of cognition – Effects of an auditory beat on oculomotor control in reading and sequential scanning
Eye-movement behavior is inherently rhythmic. Even without cognitive input, the eyes never rest, as saccades are generated 3 to 4 times per second. Based on an embodied view of cognition, we asked whether mental processing in visual cognitive tasks is also rhythmic in nature by studying the effects of an external auditory beat (rhythmic background music) on saccade generation in exemplary cognitive tasks (reading and sequential scanning). While in applied settings background music has been demonstrated to impair reading comprehension, the effect of musical tempo on eye-movement control during reading or scanning has not been investigated so far. We implemented a tempo manipulation in four steps as well as a silent baseline condition, while participants completed a text reading or a sequential scanning task that differed from each other in terms of underlying cognitive processing requirements. The results revealed that increased tempo of the musical beat sped up fixations in text reading, while the presence (vs. absence) of the auditory stimulus generally reduced overall reading time. In contrast, sequential scanning was unaffected by the auditory pacemaker. These results were supported by additionally applying Bayesian inference statistics. Our study provides evidence against a cognitive load account (i.e., that spare resources during low-demand sequential scanning allow for enhanced processing of the external beat). Instead, the data suggest an interpretation in favor of a modulation of the oculomotor saccade timer by irrelevant background music in cases involving highly automatized oculomotor control routines (here: in text reading).
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