Tuning the Senses: How the Pupil Shapes Vision at the Earliest Stage

Sebastiaan Mathôt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
175 Downloads (Pure)


The pupil responds reflexively to changes in brightness and focal distance to maintain the smallest pupil (and thus the highest visual acuity) that still allows sufficient light to reach the retina. The pupil also responds to a wide variety of cognitive processes, but the functions of these cognitive responses are still poorly understood. In this review, I propose that cognitive pupil responses, like their reflexive counterparts, serve to optimize vision. Specifically, an emphasis on central vision over peripheral vision results in pupil constriction, and this likely reflects the fact that central vision benefits most from the increased visual acuity provided by small pupils. Furthermore, an intention to act with a bright stimulus results in preparatory pupil constriction, which allows the pupil to respond quickly when that bright stimulus is subsequently brought into view. More generally, cognitively driven pupil responses are likely a form of sensory tuning: a subtle adjustment of the eyes to optimize their properties for the current situation and the immediate future.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-451
Number of pages19
JournalAnnual Review of Vision Science
Publication statusPublished - 15-Sep-2020


  • audition
  • perception
  • pupil size
  • pupillometry
  • sensation
  • vision

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