The function of “looking-at-nothing” for sequential sensorimotor tasks: Eye movements to remembered action-target locations
When performing manual actions, eye movements precede hand movements to target locations: Before we grasp an object, we look at it. Eye-hand guidance is even preserved when visual targets are unavailable, e.g., grasping behind an occlusion. This “looking-at-nothing” behavior might be functional, e.g., as “deictic pointer” for manual control or as memory-retrieval cue, or a by-product of automatization. Here, it is studied if looking at empty locations before acting on them is beneficial for sensorimotor performance. In five experiments, participants completed a click sequence on eight visual targets for 0-100 trials while they had either to fixate on the screen center or could move their eyes freely. During 50-100 consecutive trials, participants clicked the same sequence on a blank screen with free or fixed gaze. During both phases, participants looked at target locations when gaze shifts were allowed. With visual targets, target fixations led to faster, more precise clicking, fewer errors, and sparser cursor-paths than central fixation. Without visual information, a tiny free-gaze benefit could sometimes be observed and was rather a memory than a motor-calculation benefit. Interestingly, central fixation during learning forced early explicit encoding causing a strong benefit for acting on remembered targets later, independent of whether eyes moved then.
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