Computers in Human Behavior: Pupil contraction indicates cognitive fatigue, study suggests

June 11, 2024  15:17

Researchers at the University of Tsukuba (Japan) have discovered a novel way to detect cognitive fatigue through pupil contraction. The respective research was published in the scientific journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Cognitive fatigue occurs during intense and prolonged mental loads. It is manifested by deterioration of memory, inattention, loss of strength, and problems related to sleep.

The researchers recruited 35 young adult participants. These participants were divided into two groups: casual players, who played video games recreationally, and hardcore players, who engaged in competitive esports and often participated in tournaments.

The participants underwent a detailed pre-experiment protocol, including a body composition analysis and a pre-survey to assess their gaming habits, physical activity levels, and sleep patterns. On the day of the experiment, they were required to abstain from alcohol, caffeine, and strenuous exercise to ensure uniform physiological conditions.

Participants played a virtual football game for three continuous hours in individual tents to maintain consistent visual stimuli.

Initially, casual players showed an improvement in executive function after one hour of gameplay, particularly in the flanker task, which measures the ability to manage directional interference. However, after two hours, both casual and hardcore players exhibited a decline in cognitive performance. This decline was evident in increased reaction times and decreased accuracy in cognitive tasks.

The most striking finding was the significant decrease in pupil diameter after more than two hours of continuous play. This reduction in pupil size was consistent across both casual and hardcore players, 

Pupil diameter is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and can reflect changes in cognitive load and fatigue. The researchers found that as cognitive fatigue set in, pupil diameter decreased, suggesting it could serve as a reliable indicator of mental exhaustion.

The sense of fatigue did not significantly increase until after three hours of play for casual players and remained relatively stable for hardcore players.. This disparity suggests that players may not be fully aware of their cognitive decline, potentially leading to overexertion without realizing it.

The researchers concluded that pupil diameter is a promising non-invasive marker for detecting cognitive fatigue during prolonged digital activities such as esports.

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