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11-07-2016 | Original Article | Uitgave 4/2017

Psychological Research 4/2017

Evidence for a global oculomotor program in reading

Psychological Research > Uitgave 4/2017
Noor Al-Zanoon, Michael Dambacher, Victor Kuperman
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The online version of this article (doi:10.​1007/​s00426-016-0786-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.


Recent corpus studies of eye-movements in reading revealed a substantial increase in saccade amplitudes and fixation durations as the eyes move over the first words of a sentence. This start-up effect suggests a global oculomotor program, which operates on the level of an entire line, in addition to the well-established local programs operating within the visual span. The present study investigates the nature of this global program experimentally and examines whether the start-up effect is predicated on generic visual or specific linguistic characteristics and whether it is mainly reflected in saccade amplitudes, fixation durations or both measures. Eye movements were recorded while 38 participants read (a) normal sentences, (b) sequences of randomly shuffled words and (c) sequences of z-strings. The stimuli were, therefore, similar in their visual features, but varied in the amount of syntactic and lexical information. Further, the stimuli were composed of words or strings that either varied naturally in length (Nonequal condition) or were all restricted to a specific length within a sentence (Equal). The latter condition constrained the variability of saccades and served to dissociate effects of word position in line on saccade amplitudes and fixation durations. A robust start-up effect emerged in saccade amplitudes in all Nonequal stimuli, and—in an attenuated form—in Equal sentences. A start-up effect in single fixation durations was observed in Nonequal and Equal normal sentences, but not in z-strings. These findings support the notion of a global oculomotor program in reading particularly for the spatial characteristics of motor planning, which rely on visual rather than linguistic information.

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