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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Looking into the past: Eye-tracking mental simulation in physical inference


Mental simulation is a powerful cognitive capacity that underlies people's ability to draw inferences about what happened in the past from the present. Recent work suggests that eye-tracking can be used as a window through which one can study the process of mental simulation in intuitive physics tasks. In our experiment, participants have to figure out in which of three holes a ball was dropped in a virtual Plinko box. We develop a computational model of human intuitive physical reasoning in Plinko that runs repeated simulations in a noisy physics simulator in order to infer in which hole the ball was dropped. We evaluate our model's behavior against multiple human data signals: trial judgments, response times, and eye-movement data. We find that a model that sequentially samples simulations while balancing uncertainty and reward best explains the patterns of participant behavior we observe in these three signals.

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