Marina Abramović performing "The Artist Is Present" at the Museum of Modern Art in March 2010 (via Wikimedia Commons)

“I could not tell you if I loved you the first moment I saw you, or if it was the second or third or fourth. But I remember the first moment I looked at you walking toward me and realized that somehow the rest of the world seemed to vanish when I was with you.”

― Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince (2015)

Typically, the feelings evoked by locking eyes has been the mien of poets, but neuroscience has weighed in recently, with a study that examines and codifies regions of the brain that derive meaning from the social gaze. Published this month in the journal Neuron by a team of researchers at Yale University, the study proves what teenage girls already knew: Social gaze interaction powerfully shapes interpersonal communication.

“There are strong robust signals in the brain that are signatures of an interactive social gaze,” said Steve Chang, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Yale, a member of the Wu-Tsai Institute and the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, and the senior author of the study, quoted in Yale News. Graduate student Siqi Fan and Assistant Professor Olga Dal Monte, both in Yale’s Department of Psychology, are also co-authors of the study.

The study isolated and monitored a specific set of socially-tuned neurons within the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala regions of the brains of two subjects at different times during mutual eye contact. These areas showed increased activity that helps the lookers assess the nature of the social gaze. As every New Yorker knows, eye contact is made for only one of two reasons: sexual interest or extreme aggression, and it’s important to be able to discern which is which. But even for those of us in the Midwest, who make eye contact at every available opportunity, the importance and nuance of evaluating the meaning behind social gaze are reflected in the way that neurons are triggered in both the amygdala — a core emotional part of the brain that responds instinctively to threats — and the prefrontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to fully develop, and helps orchestrate executive functions like impulse control.

Chang’s lab has previously studied neurobiology in a one-sided manner, giving brain scans to individuals while presenting them with static images of fixed or averted gazes and various expressions of emotion. Pinning down the effect of two-sided eye contact, however, is a more dynamic subject, and the team addressed this by monitoring the brain activity of monkeys while simultaneously tracking the eye positions of two animals.

“They were spontaneously engaging in social interactions while we examined neural firing,” Chang told Neuroscience News. “Importantly, we were not imposing any tasks, so it was up to them to decide how and when they would interact.”

Findings were incredibly nuanced, identifying one set of neurons that fired when one subject initiated mutual eye contact, but not when that subject followed the other’s gaze, for example, and another set of neurons that activated when the monkeys were in the process of deciding whether to complete mutual eye contact initiated by the other. Some neurons marked the distance relative to another’s eyes when fixing a gaze onto another individual, but when receiving a gaze, a different set of neurons signaled how close the other individual was.

“The fact that interactive social gaze neurons are found widely in the brain also speaks to the ethological importance of social gaze interaction,” Chang said. In other words: Clear eyes, full contact, can’t lose!

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...