Look Me in the Eyes – From Eye Contact to “Fear Blindness”by Erin Falconer, MS, PhD | December 23, 2008
Eye contact is commonly considered a sign of self-confidence and a means for emotional connection. In contrast, a person who averts their gaze is often considered shy, fearful, embarrassed or lying. Many a self-help manual has touted the power of eye contact, with direct eye contact suggested to help one quickly gain an individual’s attention, create an emotional connection and make a lasting impression. While these are quite common assumptions, scientists are only beginning to unravel the cognitive and brain processes that may underlie and corroborate the significance of eye contact.
Recent studies using brain imaging show that the normal brain may essentially “prefer” to direct attention to the faces of individuals who are engaging in direct eye contact. A direct eye gaze has been shown to rapidly activate a “social brain network”, that involves a greater engagement of brain areas that are important for emotion and attention (fusiform and amygdala). This means that the brain is very rapidly engaged by someone’s direct gaze (even at the very earliest stages of perceiving that person’s face), and that this eye contact directs the brain to put more of its emotional resources into processing that face. The evidence supports the idea that engaging in direct eye contact with someone may indeed have a very significant impact on the way in which that person notices, has an emotional reaction towards, and remembers a face.
Interestingly, eye contact may be so important to our social and emotional functioning that it may even explain the social and emotional disturbances in certain clinical disorders. Autistic children, for example, show very little eye contact, and this may be due to eye contact involving an over-activation of emotional brain centers (amygdala) in these children. This means that autistic children may be perceiving eye contact as a threat, which may in turn lead to problems socializing and connecting with others.
Similarly, a recent study suggests that adolescents with psychopathic traits essentially may have a “fear blindness” that is due to a deficient ability to fixate on people’s eyes. The study at the University of New South Wales assessed adolescent males who scored high on having psychopathic traits. They found that these adolescents had a reduced ability to recognize fear, and that this deficiency was explained by a reduced ability to fixate on another’s eyes. This deficiency in eye fixation was suggested to possibly be linked to a disturbance in key emotional brain centers (amygdala) in these adolescents.
They say that the eyes may be the “windows to the soul” and the “lamp of the body.” These adages may be of significant relevance to the clinical and cognitive neurosciences.
MARK R. DADDS, YASMEEN EL MASRY, SUBODHA WIMALAWEERA, ADAM J. GUASTELLA (2008). Reduced Eye Gaze Explains “Fear Blindness” in Childhood Psychopathic Traits Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47 (4), 455-463 DOI: 10.1097/CHI.0b013e31816407f1
Kim M Dalton, Brendon M Nacewicz, Tom Johnstone, Hillary S Schaefer, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, H H Goldsmith, Andrew L Alexander, Richard J Davidson (2005). Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn1421
N GEORGE, L CONTY (2008). Facing the gaze of others Neurophysiologie Clinique/Clinical Neurophysiology, 38 (3), 197-207 DOI: 10.1016/j.neucli.2008.03.001
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