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Eye Contact With Masks: Biological Effects

How oxytocin can enhance eye contact and how social brain regions respond.

When others wear masks, their eyes, forehead, and voice become more important keys to their identity and their focus of attention. Even brief eye contact can give people a social connection, more in person than by video calls, although video call apps like Zoom and Duo can come close. When researchers look into what’s behind communication by eye contact, they find hormones and brain regions that play a big role.

Avoiding eye contact can be part of high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, so Bonnie Auyeung (2015) at Oxford University wanted to see if the hormone oxytocin could help. Oxytocin plays an important role in bonding, whether romantic or maternal. Oxytocin was administered via nasal spray to a group of men with this problem and normal control subjects. The spray helps the hormone cross the brain's barrier, and the brain has numerous nerve cells with oxytocin receptors.

When she and her colleagues measured the eye movements of both groups during a brief chat with the same female interviewer, those who received oxytocin showed increased fixations—pauses of 200-300 thousandths of a second (milliseconds)—on the eye region of the interviewer’s face, and increased time looking at this region. This was true in both groups, but for those with autistic disorder, it suggests that such a treatment might facilitate practice in social interaction. Auyeung told me by phone that "other studies have found increased focus on the eye region of a picture of a face ... The new part is that we are using a live interaction.”

The ability to look at the eye region of the face helps pick up numerous social cues. When I spoke to him by phone in 2016, James Rilling of Emory University added “If you’re not attending to those social cues, you miss ... the opportunity to learn a lot about appropriate social behavior.” If oxytocin “could normalize this ability for those with autism ... it would give more opportunity to work on social skill building.” I would suggest that one way to build those skills is by guided behavioral practice, as in Applied Behavioral Analysis.

However, the meaning of eye contact can vary. Aside from signaling social interest, eye contact can be threatening, especially if prolonged. And oxytocin can sometimes have mixed effects if it enhances people's sensitivity to the emotion of others.

You might expect some region of the brain to be activated by eye contact, but in fact, when researchers used brain imaging methods like functional MRI they found not one but several regions. Consistent among several studies is the junction where the parietal lobe on the right side of the brain joins the temporal lobe that bulges outward, somewhat like the angle between your thumb and your hand if you make a left-handed fist. This region, the angular gyrus, has been known for its role in the visual recognition of objects. It lies just above the fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobe, which was activated when people recognized different faces. According to Stanford neuroscientist Russell Poldark (2018), the same area became activated when experts in certain subjects recognized objects in their topic of expertise, as when bird watchers recognized birds or car experts recognized cars.

When Noah and colleagues at Yale (2020) analyzed the angular gyrus region during eye contact they found parallel activation in the two people involved. Activity fluctuations in one person were mirrored in the other. This led them to their Dynamic Neural Coupling Hypothesis which suggests that social interaction during eye contact is represented by “cross-brain signal coherence” between two participants.

But researchers also found activation in the amygdala, known for strong emotional memories and reactions, and parts of the prefrontal lobe, the most evolved part of the human brain. These areas are part of the “social brain,” active when perceiving or expressing emotions in social situations.

How these areas function during eye contact is a puzzle slowly coming together. So is how increased oxytocin hormone stimulates eye contact as well as social bonding. However these factors interact, we know that eye contact can be a key moment of social communication and a channel for social intelligence. A positive side effect of mask-wearing is to give us a lot of practice in these skills.

References

Auyeung, B. and colleagues (2015). Oxytocin increases eye contact during a real-time, naturalistic social interaction in males with and without autism. Translational Psychiatry 5, Feb. 10.

Lavine, R. (2016). The hormones and regions behind eye contact. The Scientist, July 31.

Eckstein M. and colleagues (2019) Oxytocin increases eye-gaze towards novel social and non-social stimuli. Journal of Social Neuroscience 14:9

Poldrack, Russell (2018). The New Mind Readers. Princeton University Press, pp. 49-51.

Noah, J.A. and colleagues (2020). Real-time Eye-to-eye Contact Is Associated With Cross-Brain Neural Coupling in Angular Gyrus. Front. Hum. Neurosci., 06 February 2020

Lavine, R. (2016). How eye contact brings you together, or pulls you apart. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuro-behavioral-betterment/201…

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