The Failed Fusion Experiment

The Failed Fusion Experiment was a watershed.

I was finishing a year as post-doctoral student at the University of California at San Diego. I had spent most of the year hesitating about what to do. Hesitating is a pleasant thing to do at UCSD. While you hesitate, you can look over the cliffs and see the California gray whales out at the horizon, on their yearly migration to or from Baja California. You can try to learn how to surf. You can go to lots of beach parties and feign a laid-back California style while you secretly worry about your future.

Only towards the end of my stay had I settled on an experiment. The purpose of the experiment was not simply to measure the compensatory signal, but to test the basic hypothesis underlying the whole notion of compensatory signal. This hypothesis is essentially the idea that information from one eye fixation is fused together with information from the next eye fixation, so as to form a coherent, composite image. According to this hypothesis what we see at any moment is not the actual retinal image, but rather the patched-together, composite image.

I hooked people up to an eye-movement measuring device, and had them look at a computer screen. I first had them look on the left of the screen, and had the computer display some random lines in the middle of the screen.

I then asked people to move their eyes to the right of the screen. At the moment their eyes moved, the computer detected this movement, and immediately replaced what was in the middle of the screen with some other random lines.

Except that I arranged the two sets of random lines so that when they were superimposed, they formed something recognizable, namely a word.

If we believe that our impression of the visual world derives not from the individual retinal images, but from the composite picture that is formed by patching together information from successive fixations, using the compensatory shift signal to determine the exact positions of each successive image, then we expect that in this experiment people should have the impression of seeing the word, not the random lines.

It was quite difficult to program the computer to run the experiment, and to link the eye movement tracker so that eye movements instantaneously determined what was on the display screen. I had only managed to get everything working at the very end of my postdoc in San Diego, just a few days before I was supposed to fly back to Paris.

Just before I left my host professor organized a beach party in Del Mar. As usual most of the students in the research group were there, vying with one another to get the attention and approbation of the professor[1], and failing that, at least to assert themselves as good frisbee throwers or sausage roasters.

In my experiments I had managed to show that one could actually see the word, even though at each individual eye fixation only incomprehensible random lines were present. There was what I called trans-saccadic fusion. I remember drawing diagrams in the sand to explain the result to the people at the party, and I was very excited when the professor fleetingly seemed interested.

When I got back to Paris I started all over with the equipment we had at my lab, trying to set up the same experiment. With a colleague it took us another year, but we got the apparatus working better than in San Diego, and we could have greater confidence in the results.

The trouble was, the results were negative[2].

There was no trans-saccadic fusion. Information from successive eye fixations was not fused together into a coherent whole.

It turned out that the reason I had got a positive result in San Diego was that I had made a mistake: the persistence of the phosphor on the display screen I had used was too long, and the random lines from before the eye movement left a slight visible trace on the screen which combined with the random lines from after the eye movement. In my San Diego experiment, trans-saccadic fusion had taken place on the screen instead of in the brain of the viewer!

The Paris finding that there was no trans-saccadic fusion was shocking to my way of thinking about vision. How can people see the world as stable, if successive images are not combined into a stable, composite framework?

We did all kinds of control experiments to check whether maybe fusion would occur more easily if there were common elements visible in the visual field before and after the saccade and that could serve as stable reference frames to help patch together successive images. But we had to finally conclude that there was nothing that could be done to save the hypothesis of trans-saccadic fusion. We went back to the drawing board to see if we could understand how the world seems stable despite eye movements.

And then a paper appeared in the prestigious journal Science, doing essentially exactly the same experiment as we had, and claiming that there was trans-saccadic fusion after all[3]. I was very upset. I wrote to the authors suggesting that their result might be due to phosphor persistence. Almost two years later the authors published another paper in Science, retracting their previous result and confirming that it had indeed been due to phosphor persistence[4].


The Failed Fusion Experiment. From top to bottom: the observer looks at the left dot, and random lines appear in the middle of the screen. Then the observer looks at the right dot, and other random lines appear. The two sets of random lines, when superimposed, would correspond to a word (as shown in the bottom diagram), but this never appears on the screen. If there is trans-saccadic fusion in the brain however, the observer should see the word. The results of the experiment are negative: there appears to be no trans-saccadic fusion.

Text and Picture change experiments

Around the time of the failed fusion experiment a number of other, related experiments were also being performed which further undermined the idea that snapshots of visual information could be combined across eye saccades.

One amusing experiment was the moving text experiment[5]. In this I hooked up observers to my eye movement measuring device and had them read texts on the screen. Unbeknownst to the observers I arranged things so that every time they made an eye movement forward in the text, the computer shifted the text leftwards by one third of the size of the person's eye movement. This meant that when the person's eyes tried to make, say, a nine-letter eye movement, their eyes actually ended up at a position that was twelve letters forward.

I printed out a little prospectus saying "Science Needs You: PhD student needs volunteers for amusing experiment in psycholinguistics", and I wandered around Paris handing it out to sympathetic-looking people, hoping that they would enthusiastically come and devote some time to Science.

Unfortunately nobody came. I finally realized I had overestimated sympathetic-looking people's interest in furthering the cause of Science. I changed my leaflet from saying "Science Needs You" to: "Earn 10 Francs". Immediately I got a constant flow of sympathetic-looking but penniless students.

And what happened was rather interesting. The observers would read through the texts, not noticing at all that the text was moving. At the end of the experiment I would ask them whether they had detected anything odd. Most of the time they would say no, and just complain about the fact that it was difficult to avoid drooling on the bite-bar that they had to sink their teeth into so that their heads would remain steady enough for the eye movement equipment to work properly.

But every now and then people would say something like: "it's funny, I seem to be reading much faster than usual."

The fact that reading is not disturbed by changing where the eyes land in a text as the reader reads suggests again that information from the outside world seems not to be being patched together into some kind of composite image based on information gathered from successive eye movements.



The conclusion was also confirmed by another, similar, experiment. In this, the text people read was displayed in AlTeRnAtInG CaSe. At every eye movement the case of each letter switched. The experimenter looking over the shoulder of the person reading would see the text switching several times a second as the person read. But, again, the person who was reading would not see the wriggling text: he would see nothing wrong at all. Only if asked to concentrate on a particular letter in a word, and then to move their eyes just a little bit away, would they notice that now the letter they had previously been looking at had changed case.

In addition to myself, two other people in the world were working on experiments like this: George McConkie at the University of Illinois, and his ex-student Keith Rayner, at that time at the University of Massachussetts, who gradually became one of the most cited workers on eye movements in reading. Like mine, the work they did involved using displays that changed as a function of where the eye moved. The purpose was to try to figure out exactly what information was carried over from one eye movement to the next.

I remember George McConkie excitedly telling me about the case-change experiment he was doing with student David Zola. He said that when he had finished preparing the computer program for the experiment, he had at first thought it was not working. He had put himself into the eye movement measuring equipment and tried without success to see the changing letters. Finally, only when he looked over the shoulder of someone else as they read, could he confirm that things were working correctly.


Today it is fairly well accepted that under normal conditions, there is no trans-saccadic fusion[6]. The brain does not build up a composite picture from the successive snapshots provided by each eye fixation. Contrary to what McConkie and most people thought at the time, the explanation for people's inability to see changes in pictures does not lie in some kind of malfunctioning of the mechanism that integrates information across eye movements. It turns out that the phenomenon is not only much more general, but fundamental to our understanding of visual consciousness.

[1] Don Norman. Dave Rumelhart was also an impressive figure there at the time.

[2] O'Regan & LŽvy-Schoen (1983)[O'Regan, 1983 #1764]

[3] Jonides, J., Irwin, D., & Yantis, S. (1982). Integrating visual information from successive fixations. Science, 215(4529), 192-194. doi: 10.1126/science.7053571.

[4] Jonides, J., Irwin, D., & Yantis, S. (1983). Failure to integrate information from successive fixations. Science, 222(4620), 188-188. doi: 10.1126/science.6623072. In your scientific career it seems that itÕs sometimes better to be wrong than to be right. When youÕre wrong, you get lots of publicity from people criticizing you, and you can later publish articles in Science retracting your earlier work.

[5] Actually these experiments were done during the first years of my PhD in Paris, in about 1973-4, before the failed fusion experiment, which I did in San Diego and then on coming back to Paris in about 1976-8..

[6] There do remain one or two curious results suggesting that some kind of information about position of objects may be retained across eye saccades, but they are in the minority.