Seeing Thoughts with Eye Tracking Technology

Pat your head with one hand while rubbing your belly with the other. It’s an age-old challenge we’ve all done. Or more exactly, we’ve all fumbled at.

And then at some point we get it. But why?

“It turns out that our cognitive architecture is such that we are always looking for a means of simplifying difficult tasks because we can’t afford to spend so much cognitive resources on just try- ing to manage two difficult tasks at the same time, so we look for ways of clumping them together,” explains Professor Dor Abrahamson, whose research focuses on embodiment theory.

This clumping together is the brain finding what Abrahamson calls an attentional anchor, a perceptual structure that allows us to coordinate our actions in order to accomplish difficult physical tasks – everything from improving table tennis forehand to playing a musical instrument, and even learning math.

Table tennis players’ return stroke can be improved by telling them to imagine a triangle shape as the opponent hits the ball onto the table (first line); then the ball bounces off the table toward the player (second line); and then the ball is hit on the return (third line).

“Once the student adopts this way of attending to the world, suddenly something changes, hopefully for the better, because it organizes the activity,” Abrahamson said.

The idea of the attentional anchor was first developed by Abrahamson’s colleagues Raúl Sánchez–García (European University, Madrid), and Dan Hutto (Wollongong University, Australia). Abrahamson and colleagues Arthur Bakker (Utrecht University, The Netherlands); Anna Shvarts (Lomonosov Moscow State University); and Rotem Abdu (Hebrew University, Israel), are taking the attentional anchor research further with the use of eye-tracking technology combined with Abrahamson’s Mathematical Imagery Trainer.

Working with the Trainer, students use both hands simultaneously to move objects on the screen, trying to keep the screen green. The screen is green only when the objects’ positions on the screen correspond to the mathematical function the students are to learn. Researchers, who are collecting data on the hand and eye movements, have found that the student eventually begins imagining a shape that is built from objects on the screen, such as a line between their hands. They attend to this “line” and manipulate it instead of focusing on moving individual objects.

“Kids invent the attentional anchor because they find, through trial and error, it helps them move their hands in a way that is manageable,” Abrahamson said.

Previous research has relied upon students explaining what they are doing and seeing. Eye-tracking provides much more data on how and when a student is learning.

“We know what the kid is about to think and say before the kid knows,” he said. “We can predict what they are about to discover before they are even conscious of it because we see that the exploration pattern is gravitating toward a certain area and pattern.”

When teachers use eye-tracking and the Trainer, they initially act in a similar way as students but discover an attentional anchor faster. A teacher could make suggestions that guide a student toward discovering for themselves the attentional anchor, and eventually an understanding of the mathematical concepts.

“And suddenly, snap! You see the student is starting to look at the screen the way the teacher does,” Abrahamson said. “It’s a new world when you can see how kids are thinking.” 

Editor's note: For more information on Abrahamson’s research, visit