Human eyes serve two key functions in face-to-face social interactions: they provide cues about a person's emotional state and attentional focus (gaze direction). Both functions critically rely on the morphologically unique human sclera and have been shown to operate even in the absence of conscious awareness in adults. However, it is not known whether the ability to respond to social cues from scleral information without conscious awareness exists early in human ontogeny and can therefore be considered a foundational feature of human social functioning. In the current study, we used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to show that 7-mo-old infants discriminate between fearful and nonfearful eyes (experiment 1) and between direct and averted gaze (experiment 2), even when presented below the perceptual threshold. These effects were specific to the human sclera and not seen in response to polarity-inverted eyes. Our results suggest that early in ontogeny the human brain detects social cues from scleral information even in the absence of conscious awareness. The current findings support the view that the human eye with its prominent sclera serves critical communicative functions during human social interactions.
Keywords: emotion processing; human eye; infancy; social perception; subliminal processing.