What Inhibits Eye Contact During Emotional Conversations?

New research on autism reveals many clues about eye contact and our emotions.

Posted Apr 04, 2016

Da Vinci/Public Domain
Source: Da Vinci/Public Domain

Trying to look deeply into the eyes of the Mona Lisa for emotional feedback can be unnerving. Regardless of your vantage point, Mona Lisa’s eyes appear to shift their gaze. The illusionary movement of Mona Lisa's eyes have struck an emotional chord in onlookers since Leonardo da Vinci painted this portrait in the early 16th century.

Like most animals, homo sapiens rely on making eye contact—and tracking eye movements or shifts in someone's gaze—to interpret important nonverbal cues on a conscious and subconscious level. Interestingly, human beings are the only primates with a large, bright, and highly visible white part of the eye, which is called the sclera.

The latest scientific research shows that making eye contact and interpreting eye movements is paramount to forming strong social bonds. Looking someone directly in the eyes at some point during a conversation is the key to making any social, professional, or deep romantic connection. All of us rely on eye contact to communicate, and connect, with one another on an intellectual and emotional level.

Children With Autism Have Extra Difficulty Maintaining Eye Contact When Discussing Their Feelings and Emotions

Unfortunately, for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) making eye contact is often anxiety inducing and is therefore avoided in many circumstances. Until now, it’s been difficult for ASD researchers to identify specific contexts that cause people on the autism spectrum to avoid looking someone directly in the eyes.  

However, in a groundbreaking new study, researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM) devised a very elegant, yet simple, experiment using eye-tracking technology and Skype. The scientists were able to observe the eye movements of typically developing children and children with autism during various topics of conversations. 

The cutting-edge research from UVM reveals that children with ASD have an especially difficult time maintaining eye contact when the conversation shifts from mundane topics to emotional topics. These new findings have broad implications for helping to explain the brain mechanics behind the role that eye contact plays in having emotional interactions and connections with others.

The April 2016 study, “Conversational Topic Moderates Social Attention in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Talking About Emotions Is Like Driving in a Snowstorm,” was published today in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. This is the first study on ASD to use eye-tracker technology to monitor eye movement during an interactive emotional conversation with test subjects. 

Participants in the study included 19 typically developing children and 18 children diagnosed with autism between the ages of six and 12 years of age.

Interestingly, this study found that children with the developmental disability fixated longer on a speaker's mouth rather than the eyes whenever the conversation became emotional. The YouTube clip below shows lead author,Tiffany Hutchins, Ph.D., speaking first with a typically developing participants and then to someone with ASD.The typically developing (TD) children in this video and the children with autism were both able to maintain eye contact talking about “things that people do.” However, when the conversation switched gears to talking about “things that people feel,” the children with ASD looked more at the mouth region and less at the eye region. In a statement, Hutchins explained this phenomenon,

"When a child with ASD engages with me, they don't just watch me passively, they have to monitor my engagement, think about what I'm doing, my tone, and my affect to get my full meaning, and that's really different than passively observing something.

What you talk about really matters for children with ASD, You just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information."

Hutchins' study also shows that children with higher degrees autism severity on the spectrum shifted their eyes more frequently towards the mouth. These correlations of shifting gaze and autism severity were also associated with, lower levels of executive function, poorer verbal skills, and intellectual abilities.

Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock
Source: Tom Gowanlock/Shutterstock

The researchers have a hypothesis that talking about feelings drains executive function resources in children with ASD, which leads to more atypical visual attention and a loss of eye contact. Conversational topic moderates visual attention in autism and eye- and mouth-looking are associated with different facets of executive function (EF).

One of the most striking results of eye-fixation and mouth-time data correlated with different executive function subdomains. The researchers have a hunch that talking about emotions “strains EF which may contribute to atypical visual attention to faces and that eye-fixation and mouth-time data may be under the control of different facets of executive function.”  

This emotional overload could cause children with autism to begin searching elsewhere on the face for more accessible cues to gauge the emotional context without having the brain short circuit. Hutchins hypothesizes that emotionally charged topics place a high demand on working memory and that when a certain cerebral threshold is surpassed, that it makes rendering information from the eye region particularly difficult. As she explains,

“Talking about emotions is really hard and very draining for children with ASD. It's like driving in a snowstorm. Normally, when you drive around in good weather on a familiar route, you go on automatic pilot and sometimes don't even remember how you got somewhere.

But for a child with ASD, having a conversation, especially one about emotions, is more like driving in a snowstorm. In that situation, you are totally focused, every move is tense and effortful, and your executive function drains away. In fact, we found that decreased working memory correlated with decreased eye fixations, so as working memory decreases, then we see fewer fixations on the eyes."

Hutchins' findings are also significant because eye information may be more relevant in conversations about emotions. As a result, children with ASD miss the chance to understand the relationship between facial expressions and underlying thoughts because they neglect the abundance of social meaning given in the eyes, she says.

Could Autism, Eye Contact, and the Cerebellum Be Intertwined?

Recently, I’ve written a wide range of Psychology Today blog posts reporting on new research which has identified a previously unrecognized correlation between autism spectrum disorders and abnormalities in the cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”).

Historically, the cerebellum has been considered by most experts to be the part of our brain that integrates sensory information and coordinates movements. However, many leading neuroscientists now believe that the cerebellum strongly influences our emotional states of mind.

Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons
Cerebellum in red. 
Source: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons

As a neuroscientist in the late 20th century, my father, Richard Bergland, was obsessed with the fact that the cerebellum occupies only 10% of brain volume but houses over 50% of the brain’s total neurons.

My dad would often say, “We don’t know exactly what the cerebellum is doing, but whatever it’s doing, it’s doing a lot of it.” Before he died, my father passed his curiosity to solve the riddles of the cerebellum on to me. Therefore, I have an esoteric penchant for looking at almost everything to do with neuroscience and emotional regulation through the lens of the cerebellum and the “Bergland split-brain model.”

Because of my unique fascination with the cerebellum, when I read the new UVM study this afternoon for the first time, I filtered it through a variety of other recent studies on the cerebellum, vestibulo-ocular reflex, and autism spectrum disorders.

I also called Tiffany Hutchins on the phone to let her know I was writing about her new study and to let her know that I was including my hypothesis about the cerebellum. Although, her research has nothing to do with the cerebellum or brain imaging, she encouraged me to include this research as part of my ongoing research about the link between eye movements and the cerebellum. 

For example, a March 2015 study from Germany, “Vestibular and Cerebellar Contribution to Gaze Optimality,” offers new clues to the neuroscience behind lining up your eyes with a “target” and the brain mechanisms behind optimizing eye contact. The study was conducted by researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) and was published in the journal Brain.

Previously, the neurologists at LMU studied how the vestibular system and cerebellum work together to optimize how we direct our gaze and focus on a target. Their new results could lead to more effective rehabilitation of patients with dysfunctions in the vestibular system or cerebellum. Other researchers around the world have found that there may be a link between autism and vestibular and/or cerebellar dysfunction.

Patients who show defects in the vestibular system or the cerebellum have incredible difficulty controlling the direction of gaze in response to changes in their environment. Also, Jeremy Schmahmann, M.D., at Harvard Medical School has a theory that the cerebellum might fine-tune our cognitive and emotional responses much the same way it fine-tunes muscle movements.

Again, my attempts to connect all of these dots are pure conjecture and a work in progress at this point. But, as an educated guess, I have a hunch that there’s something going on here that the new UVM research may be illuminating for the first time. As an example, when I read Hutchins' explanation of the "automatic" response to emotional regulation that doesn't occur in ASD during eye contact . . .  it reminded me of so many of the other "automatic" functions the cerebellum plays regarding implicit learning and muscle memory.

Conclusions: Decoding the Brain Mechanics of ASD, Emotions, and Eye Contact 

In a phone conversation with Tiffany Hutchins this afternoon, she reiterated that making children with autism feel pressured to make eye contact can potentially backfire. The findings of this study illustrate that when someone with autism is talking about his or her feelings it may be best to recognize the need to re-shift your gaze away from the eyes to reserve his or her executive function resources to go with the flow.

Hutchins emphasizes that therapists should think twice about the immediate consequences of telling a child with autism to look intently into your eyes. Hopefully, these new findings will lead to new treatments that help to minimize the social disconnection that people with autism spectrum disorders experience by finding ways to help them maintain eye contact during emotional conversations when it's appropriate.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

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