Hormones and Brain Regions Behind Eye Contact and Empathy

Studies of people with autism gives clues about the biology of empathy.

Posted Dec 12, 2016

Just the briefest eye contact can heighten empathetic feelings, giving people a sense of being drawn together. But patients who suffer from autism, even in its most high-functioning forms, often have trouble making this sort of a social connection with other people. Researchers are delving into what’s going on behind the eyes when these moments occur, and the hormones and neural substrates involved may offer hope of helping people with autism in the future. Here are some examples.

We take mental snapshots when we look at people. When you look at someone's face, your eyes may pause or fixate on their eyes, mouth, or nose for only 1/4 to 1/3 second before darting to another point, in a path that can be traced with eye tracking technology. The pauses allow a kind of mental snapshot that we use to get an impression of the other person. But people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, even the high-functioning type also known as Asperger's Syndrome, tend to avoid looking at the eyes.

Eye movements while scanning a face. Eye tracking path is superimposed over the image.
Source: Szakkad.jpg/wikipedia/commons/d/d3

A hormone can encourage eye contact and empathy. That's why Bonnie Auyung's findings that a dose of oxytocin hormone increased the fraction of time that men with autism looked at an interviewer's eyes, as it did with typical men, could point to future treatment, especially if combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy that encourages practice in gazing directly and empathizing with others.

As James Rilling, a cognitive neuroscientist at Emory University, told me by phone,  "The ability of oxytocin to get the men to look at the eye region of the face more is probably very important because we receive so many social cues from the eye region”... “If you’re not attending to those social cues, you miss a lot, and then in turn you miss the opportunity to learn a lot about appropriate social behavior.” If oxytocin could normalize this ability for those with autism, Rilling adds, it would “give more opportunity to work on social skill building.”

The hormone, widely known as Pitocin for its use in childbirth, appears to excite oxytocin  receptor sites on neurons in the brain.

Eye contact may normally activate certain "social brain" regions. Even when it occurs, eye contact, or direct gaze, appears to activate certain brain regions in typical people more than in people with autism. With brain scans by functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI), Elizabeth von dem Hagen of the UK's Medical Research Council found those regions where the temporal lobe in the side of the brain joins the parietal lobe above it, in front of the region where the visual cortex receives signals from the retina.

Another site identified by von dem Hagen is in the frontal lobe near the midline. These and other regions have been deemed part if a "social brain" network that responds to direct gaze and other social signals. 

Direct gaze is a social signal in non-human primates too. When one monkey used a touch screen to present a juice treat to another, it tended to look them in the eye. But when it punished them with a puff of air, it tended to look away. This behavior in nonhuman primates reinforces the idea that eye contact or mutual gaze and empathic actions can be interpreted on both biological and psychological  levels.

A behavior that seems so simple and natural to many of us can be a difficult psychosocial event to individuals with autism. But as researchers dig into the neural, hormonal, and behavioral drivers at play behind eye contact, there may be hope that some of the neurological and behavioral symptoms of autism spectrum conditions may someday be alleviated.

Adapted with permission from an article that appeared in The Scientist, August 2016.


Ballesta, S. and others (2015). Rudimentary empathy in macaques’ social decision-making. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Auyeung. B. and others (2015). Oxytocin increases eye contact during a real-time, naturalistic social interaction in males with and without autism, Translational Psychiatry.

Lavine, R. (2016), "Vision" in Neuroscience ABCs: Brain Basics for Medicine, Health Sciences, and Interested Readers. (Kindle).

Sibert, J. and others (2005). The reading assistant: eye gaze triggered auditory prompting for reading remediation.  In Ardissono, L. and others (2005) eds. User Modeling 2005: 10th International Conference, UM 2005.