Do the eyes have it? Cues to the direction of social attention

Trends Cogn Sci. 2000 Feb;4(2):50-59. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(99)01436-9.


The face communicates an impressive amount of visual information. We use it to identify its owner, how they are feeling and to help us understand what they are saying. Models of face processing have considered how we extract such meaning from the face but have ignored another important signal - eye gaze. In this article we begin by reviewing evidence from recent neurophysiological studies that suggests that the eyes constitute a special stimulus in at least two senses. First, the structure of the eyes is such that it provides us with a particularly powerful signal to the direction of another person's gaze, and second, we may have evolved neural mechanisms devoted to gaze processing. As a result, gaze direction is analysed rapidly and automatically, and is able to trigger reflexive shifts of an observer's visual attention. However, understanding where another individual is directing their attention involves more than simply analysing their gaze direction. We go on to describe research with adult participants, children and non-human primates that suggests that other cues such as head orientation and pointing gestures make significant contributions to the computation of another's direction of attention.