To mirror or not to mirror upon mutual gaze, oxytocin can pave the way: A cross-over randomized placebo-controlled trial

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Apr;90:148-156. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.02.016. Epub 2018 Feb 22.


The eyes constitute a highly salient cue to communicate social intent. Previous research showed that direct eye contact between two individuals can readily evoke an increased propensity to 'mirror' other peoples' actions. Considering the implicated role of the prosocial neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) in enhancing the saliency of social cues and modulating approach/avoidance motivational tendencies, the current study adopted the non-invasive brain stimulation technique transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to explore whether a single dose of intranasal OXT (24 IU) modulated (enhanced) a person's propensity to show heightened mirroring or motor resonance upon salient social cues, such as eye contact. The study involved a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial with twenty-seven healthy adult men (19-32 y). By applying single-pulse TMS over the primary motor cortex during movement observation, it was shown that motor resonance was significantly higher when movement observation was accompanied by direct, compared to averted gaze, but that a single dose of OXT did not uniformly enhance this effect. Significant moderations of the treatment effect were noted however, indicating that participants with high self-reports of attachment avoidance displayed a stronger OXT-treatment effect (enhancement of motor resonance upon direct eye contact), compared to participants with low attachment avoidance. Particularly, while participants with high attachment avoidance initially displayed a reduced propensity to increase their motor resonance upon direct eye contact, a single dose of OXT was able to promote an otherwise avoidant individual's propensity to engage in motor resonance upon a salient social cue such as eye contact.

Keywords: Biological motion perception; Eye contact; Mirror system; Oxytocin; Transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Adult
  • Affect / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Cues
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Eye Movements / drug effects
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / drug effects*
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology
  • Oxytocin / administration & dosage*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation / methods
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocin