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Pupillometry as a measure of cognitive effort in younger and older adults


  • The authors acknowledge support from NIH Grant AG019714 from the National Institute on Aging. We also gratefully acknowledge support from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Address reprint requests to: Arthur Wingfield, Volen National Center for Complex Systems, MS 013, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454-9110, USA. E-mail:


Two experiments examined the effectiveness of the pupillary response as a measure of cognitive load in younger and older adults. Experiment 1 measured the change in pupil size of younger and older adults while they listened to spoken digit lists that varied in length and retained them briefly for recall. In Experiment 2 changes in relative pupil size were measured while younger and older adults listened to sentences for later recall that varied in syntactic complexity and sentence length. Both age groups' pupil sizes were sensitive to the size of the memory set in Experiment 1 and sentence length in Experiment 2, with the older adults showing a larger effect of the memory load on a normalized measure of pupil size relative to the younger adults. By contrast, only the younger adults showed a difference in the pupillary response to a change in syntactic complexity, even with an adjustment for the reduced reactivity of the older pupil.