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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Posttraumatic stress disorder and differences in eye gaze during a visual search task with cognitive load


Military deployments often expose personnel to highly threatening and stressful circumstances that put them at greater risk for developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD may alter internal processes that affect one’s ability to maintain situational awareness (SA). Military personnel conducting patrols must maintain SA to search for threats, with potentially life-threatening consequences if SA drops. Here an exploratory analyses was conducted to determine whether there were differences in performance and eye gaze behavior between those with and without PTSD during a free-viewing visual search task conducted in a virtual desktop environment. Cognitive workload was increased through an additional auditory Math Task. While performance did not differ significantly between the two Groups, key differences in gaze behavior were found. Results showed that those with PTSD viewed significantly more trail markers, had increased duration of individual fixations overall, and decreased fixation and saccade rates during the Math Task. These results appear consistent with previous findings suggesting those with PTSD may have difficulty disengaging from stimuli.

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