The latest Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a fantastic review article on the cognitive neuroscience of eye contact, demonstrating how this fleeting social connection has a powerful impact on the mind and brain.
Past research has shown that making eye contact has an impact on social perception and subsequent behaviour.
It also seems to increase general arousal and fixes attention – we’re less likely to notice things happening on the periphery of our vision if we’re staring at a face with eye contact than at a face where the eyes are diverted to the side.
In neuroimaging studies eye contact has been found to increase activity in a group of areas (medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal gyrus, fusiform gyrus) that have often been associated with social interaction across a wide range of studies.
Interestingly, the authors suggest that basic eye contact information might be detected by a specific subcortical mechanism that quickly detects simple light/dark differences, presumably to pick out the direction of the pupil, which then triggers more complex social processing to make sense of its social meaning.
It’s an interesting field, not least because recognising eye contact and following the gaze direction of others are thought to be some of the most fundamental building blocks on which social communication develops in babies.
Children with autism have been found to show radically different patterns of eye contact recognition and gaze direction, and the authors suggest that one cause could be a problem with the these eye contact neural circuits which leads to slow or impaired social understanding.