The eyes have it: Mutual gaze potentially a vital component in social interactions

December 16, 2015

Okazaki, Japan - A person in love gazes longingly and attentively at the object of his or her desire. When we want to grab another person's attention, we look directly into their eyes. Why do we behave this way? What happens during our gazing?

Researchers at the National Institute of Physiological Science (NIPS) have revealed that mutual eye contact synchronizes spontaneous activity in specific areas of the brains of two interacting parties. The finding indicates that this synchronized brain activity is crucial in establishing and facilitating face-to-face social interaction.

In most cultures, we are taught from a young age to maintain eye contact when we speak. Failure to do so may be considered impolite, and can even risk losing the other party's attention. As it turns out, eye contact is fundamental in all human face-to-face interactions. The mechanisms of visual attention through eye contact maintained between two people (mutual gaze), and toward a third person or an object (joint attention), have been extensively studied. However, the underpinnings of the attention being shared and retained have remained unclear.

To further explore this topic, the NIPS team enrolled 96 volunteers who were not mutually acquainted, and conducted a series of tests to investigate the brain activity during situations with sustained eye contact.

Three sets of experiments were conducted over 2 days. Participants were paired with different partners and instructed to hold each other's gaze in real time under various conditions. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imagining to monitor the brain activity that took place during mutual gaze. Takahiko Koike, the study's first author, explains: "We expected that eye-blink synchronization would be a sign of shared attention when performing a task requiring joint attention, and the shared attention would be retained as a social memory." They also expected that the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) in the brain would be activated by both the initiator and the respondent to the gaze.

Indeed, the researchers detected synchronization of eye-blinks, together with enhanced inter-brain synchronization in the IFG, in the pairs when eye contact was established. Compared with findings from previous studies, these outcomes show that synchronization of eye-blinks is not attributable to a common activity, but rather to mutual gaze. This indicates that mutual eye contact might be a crucial component for human face-to-face social interactions, given its potential to bind two individuals into a singular connected system. This topic warrants further investigation to truly understand what is at work behind interpersonal communications.

"Based on the enhancement of behavioral and neural synchronization during mutual gaze, we now know that shared attention is hard to establish without eye contact," Norihiro Sadato, senior author of the study, says. "Further investigation into the workings of eye contact may reveal the specific functional roles of neural synchronization between people."
-end-
The paper "Neural substrates of shared attention as social memory: A hyperscanning functional magnetic resonance imaging study" will appear 15 January 2016 in NeuroImage; doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.09.076

National Institutes of Natural Sciences

Related Brain Activity Articles from Brightsurf:

Inhibiting epileptic activity in the brain
A new study shows that a protein -- called DUSP4 -- was increased in healthy brain tissue directly adjacent to epileptic tissue.

What is your attitude towards a humanoid robot? Your brain activity can tell us!
Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy found that people's bias towards robots, that is, attributing them intentionality or considering them as 'mindless things', can be correlated with distinct brain activity patterns.

Using personal frequency to control brain activity
Individual frequency can be used to specifically influence certain areas of the brain and thus the abilities processed in them - solely by electrical stimulation on the scalp, without any surgical intervention.

Rats' brain activity reveals their alcohol preference
The brain's response to alcohol varies based on individual preferences, according to new research in rats published in eNeuro.

Studies of brain activity aren't as useful as scientists thought
Hundreds of published studies over the last decade have claimed it's possible to predict an individual's patterns of thoughts and feelings by scanning their brain in an MRI machine as they perform some mental tasks.

A child's brain activity reveals their memory ability
A child's unique brain activity reveals how good their memories are, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

How dopamine drives brain activity
Using a specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor that can track dopamine levels, MIT neuroscientists have discovered how dopamine released deep within the brain influences distant brain regions.

Brain activity intensity drives need for sleep
The intensity of brain activity during the day, notwithstanding how long we've been awake, appears to increase our need for sleep, according to a new UCL study in zebrafish, published in Neuron.

Do babies like yawning? Evidence from brain activity
Contagious yawning is observed in many mammals, but there is no such report in human babies.

Understanding brain activity when you name what you see
Using complex statistical methods and fast measurement techniques, researchers found how the brain network comes up with the right word and enables us to say it.

Read More: Brain Activity News and Brain Activity Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.