Involuntary eye movements during fixation of gaze are typically transiently inhibited following stimulus onset. This oculomotor inhibition (OMI), which includes microsaccades and spontaneous eye blinks, is modulated by stimulus saliency and anticipation, but it is currently unknown whether it is sensitive to familiarity. To investigate this, we measured the OMI while observers passively viewed a slideshow of one familiar and 7 unfamiliar facial images presented briefly at 1 Hz in random order. Since the initial experiments indicated that OMI was occasionally insensitive to familiarity when the facial images were highly visible, and to prevent top-down strategies and potential biases, we limited visibility by backward masking making the faces barely visible or at the fringe of awareness. Under these conditions, we found prolonged inhibition of both microsaccades and eye-blinks, as well as earlier onset of microsaccade inhibition with familiarity. These findings demonstrate, for the first time, the sensitivity of OMI to familiarity. Because this is based on involuntary eye movements and can be measured on the fringe of awareness and in passive viewing, our results provide direct evidence that OMI can be used as a novel physiological measure for studying hidden memories with potential implications for health, legal, and security purposes.
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© 2019, The Author(s).