Neural mechanisms of eye contact when listening to another person talking

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017 Feb 1;12(2):319-328. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw127.


Eye contact occurs frequently and voluntarily during face-to-face verbal communication. However, the neural mechanisms underlying eye contact when it is accompanied by spoken language remain unexplored to date. Here we used a novel approach, fixation-based event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to simulate the listener making eye contact with a speaker during verbal communication. Participants' eye movements and fMRI data were recorded simultaneously while they were freely viewing a pre-recorded speaker talking. The eye tracking data were then used to define events for the fMRI analyses. The results showed that eye contact in contrast to mouth fixation involved visual cortical areas (cuneus, calcarine sulcus), brain regions related to theory of mind/intentionality processing (temporoparietal junction, posterior superior temporal sulcus, medial prefrontal cortex) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In addition, increased effective connectivity was found between these regions for eye contact in contrast to mouth fixations. The results provide first evidence for neural mechanisms underlying eye contact when watching and listening to another person talking. The network we found might be well suited for processing the intentions of communication partners during eye contact in verbal communication.

Keywords: eye contact; eye tracking; rapid event-related design; verbal communication; fixation-based event-related fMRI.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Communication*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology*
  • Functional Neuroimaging*
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology*
  • Visual Cortex / physiology
  • Young Adult