FEB 25, 2019 02:41 PM PST

Eye Contact Activates Brain Regions Involved in Social Behavior

WRITTEN BY: Amy Loriaux

Much of us already know that eye contact is very important when engaging someone in a conversation. But why exactly? A new study out of National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Okazaki, Japan, has just recently found important brain regions that are activated by achieving eye contact. The research, published in eNeuro by Dr. Norihiro Sadato, MD, Ph.D., and colleagues, tested the hypothesis using a hyperscanning functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that eye contact should activate the limbic mirror system, including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula (AIC). Their findings help explain the neurobiology behind social interactions.

Photo source: UnSplash.com

The research is based on the theory of automatic mimicry. This refers to nonconscious or automatic imitation of movement, a process which is very important for social interactions. Automatic mimicry has been proposed to have evolved in humans to allow us to show empathy and affiliation towards other humans. People have a tendency when interacting with someone to synchronize their facial expressions, posture, laughter, and yawning. These synchronizations, or mimicry, happen automatically without notice (unless you are looking for it).

Recent human imaging studies have shown that eye contact activates the "social brain". Scientists debate about the specific regions involved in this "social brain" but generally it includes the fusiform gyrus (important for recognizing faces), the temporal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, orbital prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. However, the data which prompted their inclusion came from studies in which only one person was scanned. The current research used a two-person method, with both participants being scanned at the same time while they interacted with each other.

Photo source: UnSplash.com

This dynamic interaction implicated some unexpected areas. For example, areas in the cerebellum became active when participants made eye contact. The cerebellum has long had a reputation for mediating movements and balance, but more recent research suggests that it does a lot more. The cerebellum predicts future consequences of our behavior, detecting errors if our expectations are not met. It is also important for normal sensorimotor function. It uses sensory feedback to update future predictions.

As predicted the ACC and the limbic mirror system were both involved. Connectivity between the ACC and the AIC was enhanced while maintaining eye contact. Furthermore, there was inter-brain synchronization between the two participants in a region called the middle occipital gyrus (MOG). It is this inter-brain synchronization that is elicited by maintaining eye contact. It also suggests that we can (unconsciously) influence the brain activity of others through social interaction. While it is not necessarily mind reading, it certainly changes one's perspective about attending that next social event.

 

Sources: eNeuro, Virginia Tech, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Experimental Brain Research, Nature

About the Author
  • I currently work at a small CRO involved in clinical trial management.
You May Also Like
FEB 16, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
FEB 16, 2019
Studying the Evolution of the Human Brain
From a genetic perspective, humans are only 1.2% different from chimpanzees and a cousin of theirs, the bonobo....
FEB 17, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
FEB 17, 2019
Stem Cells as a Potential Treatment for Parkinson's Disease
While the symptoms of Parkinson's disease vary, treatment options are limited and the condition tends to get worse over time....
MAR 24, 2019
Videos
MAR 24, 2019
The effect of music on your brain
Do you listen to music to help you calm down or focus or pump yourself up? You're not alone! Studies show that listening to music can boost your creati...
APR 15, 2019
Immunology
APR 15, 2019
Fecal Transplant improves ASD
Our understanding of the brain-gut connection is increasing by the day. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also experience gastrointestinal sy...
MAY 01, 2019
Health & Medicine
MAY 01, 2019
Scientists Define a New Alzheimer's-like Disease
A team of international scientists has defined a new type of dementia that closely mimics the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The disease has been n...
MAY 12, 2019
Drug Discovery
MAY 12, 2019
Potential of Statins to Treat Multiple Sclerosis
A widely used therapeutic statin, simvastatin, which is intended to treat cholesterol was found to be medically beneficial for patients with secondary prog...
Loading Comments...