Microsaccades are miniature eye movements that occur involuntarily during fixation. They are typically inhibited following stimulus onset and are released from inhibition about 300 ms post-stimulus. Microsaccade-inhibition is modulated by low level features of visual stimuli, but it is currently unknown whether they are sensitive to higher level, abstract linguistic properties. To address this question, we measured the timing of microsaccades while subjects were presented with written Hebrew words and pronounceable nonwords (pseudowords). We manipulated the underlying structure of pseudowords such that half of them contained real roots while the other half contained invented roots. Importantly, orthographic similarity to real words was equated between the two conditions. Microsaccade onset was significantly slower following real-root compared to invented-root stimuli. Similar results were obtained when considering post-stimulus delay of eye blinks. Moreover, microsaccade-delay was positively and significantly correlated with measures of real-word similarity. These findings demonstrate, for the first time, sensitivity of microsaccades to linguistic structure. Because microsaccades are involuntary and can be measured in the absence of overt response, our results provide initial evidence that they can be used as a novel physiological measure in the study of language processes in healthy and clinical populations.
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