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The Neuroscience of Making Eye Contact

Why is making eye contact such a powerful and primal reflex?

What is the neuroscience behind making eye contact? Why does looking deeply into someone's eyes feel like opening a window into his or her soul? Why do some people have difficulty making eye contact? The answer to these questions lies in a primal—and mostly subconscious—region of the brain called the cerebellum (Latin for "Little Brain").

Looking someone directly in the eyes during a conversation is the key to making a social, professional, or romantic connection. We rely on eye contact to communicate and connect with one another on a conscious and unconscious level.

A recent study from Germany titled “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 is published in the current issue of the journal Brain.

The Cerebellum Makes Eye-to-Eye Contact Possible

Most of us have experienced the visceral rush of making eye contact with an attractive stranger across the room at a crowded event or bar, or on a dance floor. Unfortunately, patients who show defects of the vestibular system or cerebellum have difficulty controlling the direction of their gaze in response to changes in the environment and struggle to make eye contact.

Our cerebellum is one of the most ancient brain regions and became fine-tuned over the millions of years homo sapiens spent as hunters and gatherers. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to hone in on a target and focus your gaze is necessary for hunting prey. The cerebellum is a primitive and intuitive brain region that we relied on to kill moving prey with a spear.

Over millennia, both hemispheres of the cerebellum have evolved to work seamlessly with both hemispheres of the cerebrum to create peak human performance. From an athletic perspective, the cerebellum makes it possible to simultaneously run and lock your eyes onto a moving target. The cerebellum is the primary brain area used when: catching a baseball, hitting a tennis ball, shooting a basketball, etc.

When you shift the direction of our gaze, your head and eye movements are automatically coordinated with each other via the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) which is part of the vestibular system connected to the cerebellum. The VOR is a reflex eye movement that stabilizes images on the retina during head movements by automatically producing an eye movement in the opposite direction of the head movement.

The VOR keeps a target in the center of the visual field and is also a voluntary reflex that allows us to maintain eye contact. When you lock your eyes on a target and the head moves to the right, the VOR automatically moves your eyes to the left, and vice versa. Since slight head movements are omnipresent, the VOR is important for stabilizing vision and keeping us connected to the people and objects in our environment.

If your VOR and cerebellum aren’t working properly, the world around you becomes a disorienting blur. This disorder is called “oscillopsia” because it is a visual disturbance in which objects in the visual field literally appear to oscillate. Without a properly functioning cerebellum, it's nearly impossible to make eye contact with someone in the swirling sea of stimuli and disorienting perceptions of reality.

Making Eye Contact Is Akin to Keeping Your Eye On the Ball

I first became aware of the vestibulo-ocular reflex when I was learning to play tennis. My dad was a nationally-ranked player and my coach. He was also a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon. When my father was coaching me, he would say things like, “Of this I am absolutely certain, becoming a neurosurgeon was a direct consequence of my eye for the ball.” When my dad spoke of having an “eye for the ball” he was talking about the VOR system and the cerebellum.

In my book, The Athlete’s Way I put the cerebellum and VOR in the spotlight because they are key to success in sports, and in life. (For more, see my chapter, “Sweat and the Pursuit of Happiness.”)

From the endless possible combinations of speed and duration between eye and head movements, the VOR and cerebellum minimize potential errors. Together they automatically coordinate your focus and gaze which makes eye contact with a person or target possible. There’s no way that you can hit it out of the park as an athlete or professional if you can’t keep your eye on the ball and make authentic eye-to-eye contact with colleagues, customers, and bosses.

Could the Vestibular System and Cerebellum Be Linked to Autism?

People have known for decades that the vestibular system and cerebellum are responsible for maintaining balance, proprioception, and posture. The new German study, led by Nadine Lehnen and colleagues Murat Saglam and Stefan Glasauer, investigates the significance of the vestibular system and cerebellum for the optimization of motor coordination required to maintain eye contact with a target.

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 research around the world has 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. Hopefully, these new findings will help with treatments for social disconnection that people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) or Asperger Syndrome (AS) experience and their difficulty with maintaining eye contact.

Conclusion: Making Eye Contact Is a Voluntary Movement That Improves With Practice

“It turns out that information relayed from the balance organs to the vestibular system is essential for the optimization of gaze shifts,” Nadine Lehnen concludes. "Patients with complete bilateral vestibular loss are unable to perform such shifts in the most efficient way."

Luckily, because of neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain tissue in the cerebellum to adapt and reshape, eye gaze can usually be improved through practice. Glasauer says, “Patients with cerebellar damage can, to a certain extent, learn to optimize certain parameters of head and eye movements, by adjusting the velocity of head movement, for instance.”

“These results provide the first evidence that the vestibular system is critical for optimizing voluntary movements," says Kathleen E. Cullen of McGill University, in a commentary to the study that also appears in Brain.

The ability to optimize the focus of your gaze can help you succeed in sports and life. One of the consequences of living in a sedentary society is that we don't flex the cerebellum enough and often miss out on eye-to-eye connections. The lack of movement in a three-dimensional space and of human interactions causes the cerebellum to atrophy and impairs its function.

Fortunately, working out and playing any sport bulks up the cerebellum and can improve your VOR. Also, making an effort to socialize in person and look people in the eye flexes your cerebellar and vestibular system. Many studies have found that maintaining face-to-face human connections is ultimately the key to our happiness, well-being, and longevity.

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland

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