Reading the mind from eye gaze

Neuropsychologia. 2002;40(8):1129-38. doi: 10.1016/s0028-3932(02)00008-8.


Baron-Cohen [Mindblindness: an essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997] has suggested that the interpretation of gaze plays an important role in a normal functioning theory of mind (ToM) system. Consistent with this suggestion, functional imaging research has shown that both ToM tasks and eye gaze processing engage a similar region of the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS). However, a second brain region associated with ToM, the medial prefrontal (MPF) cortex, has not been identified by previous eye gaze studies. We discuss the methodological issues that may account for the absence of MPF activation in these experiments and present a PET study that controls for these factors. Our experiment included three conditions in which the proportions of faces gazing at, and away from, the participant, were as follows: 100% direct [0% averted], 50% direct-50% averted, and 100% horizontally averted [0% direct]. Two control conditions were also included in which the faces' gaze were averted down, or their eyes were closed. Contrasts comparing the gaze conditions with each of the control conditions revealed medial frontal involvement. Parametric analyses showed a significant linear relationship between increasing proportions of horizontally averted gaze and increased rCBF in the MPF cortex. The opposite parametric analysis (increasing proportions of direct gaze) was associated with increased rCBF in a number of areas including the superior and medial temporal gyri. Additional subtraction contrasts largely confirmed these patterns. Our results demonstrate a considerable degree of overlap between the medial frontal areas involved in eye gaze processing and theory of mind tasks.

MeSH terms

  • Arousal
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional
  • Middle Aged
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Psychophysiology
  • Regional Blood Flow / physiology
  • Social Perception*
  • Temporal Lobe / blood supply
  • Temporal Lobe / diagnostic imaging*
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*