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Researchers study eye movement to predict learning epiphanies

"We don't see the epiphany in their choice of numbers, but we see it in their eyes," said researcher James Wei Chen.

By Brooks Hays
New research may help scientists better understand epiphany learning. Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Ollyy
New research may help scientists better understand epiphany learning. Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Ollyy

April 17 (UPI) -- By tracking people's eye movement, a pair of researchers at Ohio State University were able to predict when an epiphany, or "aha moment," was about to occur.

The research, detailed in the journal PNAS, could help scientists better understand "epiphany learning."

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Scientists tracked the eye movements of people as they played a strategy game on the computer. Modest prize incentivized players to try to win. Eye movement patterns revealed the evolution of each players's strategy and execution, and predicted when an epiphany -- a realization of the game's winning strategy -- was forthcoming.

"We could see our study participants figuring out the solution through their eye movements as they considered their options," Ian Krajbich, an assistant professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State, said in a news release. "We could predict they were about to have an epiphany before they even knew it was coming."

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The game pitted participants against unseen opponents. Each participant played 30 times, each time against a new opponent.

The game's action is simple, each player picks a number from a selection of zero through ten arranged in a circle. The rules of the game, however, are complex, and the logic for why one number beats another isn't obvious.

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After each game, players are given the option to select a single number for the rest of their matchups. Some 43 percent of players eventually realized lower numbers win. In the wake of their epiphany, they decided to commit to the number zero.

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"There's a sudden change in their behavior. They are choosing other numbers and then all of a sudden they switch to choosing only zero," Krajbich said. "That's a hallmark of epiphany learning."

But number selection patterns didn't necessarily predict the arrival of an epiphany, eye movements did.

"We don't see the epiphany in their choice of numbers, but we see it in their eyes," said James Wei Chen, a doctoral student in economics at Ohio State. "Their attention is drawn to zero and they start testing it more and more."

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The researchers also measured the pupil dilation of participants.

"When your pupil dilates, we see that as evidence that you're paying close attention and learning," Krajbich said.

The of participants who solved the strategy puzzle experienced greater pupil dilation while processing the results of each matchup prior to their epiphany and decision to commit to the number zero. Researchers say their findings suggests self-reflection and self-analysis can yield valuable insights.

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"One thing we can take away from this research is that it is better to think about a problem than to simply follow others," Krajbich said. "Those who paid more attention to their opponents tended to learn the wrong lesson."

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