Psychology department researches eye movements, reading comprehension

Arin Bisaro | Staff Photographer Third year student Maddie Powers demonstrates how the new eye tracking machine works Thursday afternoon in Sloan Hall room 110

Students and faculty members in the psychology department have been using research they have gathered on eye movements to see how it relates to reading comprehension.

The Eyelink 1000 eye tracker, which is utilized during the research, monitors eye movement while participants read selected texts for various studies.

“The Miranda Project is the most important study in the lab right now because of its potential impact on how people are informed of their rights,” psychology professor Jane Ashby said. “For the first time, we will be examining why people have difficulty understanding and utilizing their Miranda rights.”

Bloomfield Hills graduate student Stephen Agauas has been working alongside Ashby during the project.

“We’re looking at three different versions of Miranda that vary in difficulty," he said. “Your typical offender has an average (reading) level of about third or fourth grade, which isn’t good. So, if you’re using a really difficult version of Miranda and you’re giving it to these adults who don’t really understand what they’re being read; are they understanding what’s going on?”

The research formulates the results through reflecting glass and camera censors.

“The (participants) read the computer screen and while they read, the camera tracks all of their eye movements, which are reflected into the glass and then the camera picks up those movements,” Agauas said. “It’s very precise. We can take measurements up to within a millisecond. We can actually see the eye movements within about a character, or letter of a word.”

Once all of the data is compiled, it is ready for review.

“Every little piece of information (that shows on the computer screen) are all the eye movements, those are all the fixations," Agauas said. "Every one of the little boxes is where the eyes stop moving. We see everything that happens as the participant is reading a sentence or a single word. There are a lot of measures that we look at including the number of fixations and the time spent on each word.”

Ashby said the project has the potential to significantly change the judicial system.

“This project is a major breakthrough in the psychology of law,” Ashby said. “Potentially, the findings could help reduce the rates of false confessions and the wrongful imprisonment of innocent citizens.”

Agauas, who has been working in the eye tracking lab since March, is excited with the results and what the gathered information might lead to.

“We collected a lot of data in the spring, more than you would see in a lot of labs," he said. "We’re very fortunate that we have a method that’s pretty flexible, and because it’s a physiological measure, a lot of people are interested in applying that to different areas of psychology.”

Agauas, who would like to eventually become a professor, is hoping that working on these projects as a student will help him in his future.

“All of these (studies) should lead to publications in journals of some sort, some of them hopefully in major journals," he said. “That’s what everyone is looking for in my job field because these (studies) are novel and unique. Having them (published) in good journals would be a good thing for me.”

Aside from a few minor setbacks, which are generally caught early on by undergraduate assistants and Agauas himself, everything has been running smooth and efficiently.

“Dr. Ashby is just spectacular to work with,” Agauas said. “All of the professors in the department here really do care about their students' success.”


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