Look Me in the Eyes – From Eye Contact to “Fear Blindness”

Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryEye contact is commonly considered a sign of self-confidence and a means for emotional connection. In contrast, a person who averts their gaze is often considered shy, fearful, embarrassed or lying. Many a self-help manual has touted the power of eye contact, with direct eye contact suggested to help one quickly gain an individual’s attention, create an emotional connection and make a lasting impression. While these are quite common assumptions, scientists are only beginning to unravel the cognitive and brain processes that may underlie and corroborate the significance of eye contact.

Recent studies using brain imaging show that the normal brain may essentially “prefer” to direct attention to the faces of individuals who are engaging in direct eye contact. A direct eye gaze has been shown to rapidly activate a “social brain network”, that involves a greater engagement of brain areas that are important for emotion and attention (fusiform and amygdala). This means that the brain is very rapidly engaged by someone’s direct gaze (even at the very earliest stages of perceiving that person’s face), and that this eye contact directs the brain to put more of its emotional resources into processing that face. The evidence supports the idea that engaging in direct eye contact with someone may indeed have a very significant impact on the way in which that person notices, has an emotional reaction towards, and remembers a face.

Eye ContactInterestingly, eye contact may be so important to our social and emotional functioning that it may even explain the social and emotional disturbances in certain clinical disorders. Autistic children, for example, show very little eye contact, and this may be due to eye contact involving an over-activation of emotional brain centers (amygdala) in these children. This means that autistic children may be perceiving eye contact as a threat, which may in turn lead to problems socializing and connecting with others.

Similarly, a recent study suggests that adolescents with psychopathic traits essentially may have a “fear blindness” that is due to a deficient ability to fixate on people’s eyes. The study at the University of New South Wales assessed adolescent males who scored high on having psychopathic traits. They found that these adolescents had a reduced ability to recognize fear, and that this deficiency was explained by a reduced ability to fixate on another’s eyes. This deficiency in eye fixation was suggested to possibly be linked to a disturbance in key emotional brain centers (amygdala) in these adolescents.

They say that the eyes may be the “windows to the soul” and the “lamp of the body.” These adages may be of significant relevance to the clinical and cognitive neurosciences.


MARK R. DADDS, YASMEEN EL MASRY, SUBODHA WIMALAWEERA, ADAM J. GUASTELLA (2008). Reduced Eye Gaze Explains “Fear Blindness” in Childhood Psychopathic Traits Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47 (4), 455-463 DOI: 10.1097/CHI.0b013e31816407f1

Kim M Dalton, Brendon M Nacewicz, Tom Johnstone, Hillary S Schaefer, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, H H Goldsmith, Andrew L Alexander, Richard J Davidson (2005). Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn1421

N GEORGE, L CONTY (2008). Facing the gaze of others Neurophysiologie Clinique/Clinical Neurophysiology, 38 (3), 197-207 DOI: 10.1016/j.neucli.2008.03.001

  • Ilya Yakubovich

    It is important to take cultural differences into consideration.

    In Western, particularly North American culture, eye contact is taught as being very important in all situations whereas in other cultures it is not the case. For example, Russians consider eye contact to be intimate and therefore impolite among strangers. In Islam, eye contact between members of opposite sexes is considered sinful.

    It’s not surprising that eye contact “directs the brain to put more of its emotional resources into processing that face”, but saying that the brain “prefers” direct attention is a leap.

    On a related topic, it has also been found that eye contact makes it more difficult to concentrate and process information. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4602178.stm)

  • Erin Falconer

    The point that there are cultural differences in individual and societal response to eye contact is a good one – a study of possible differences in the brain response to eye contact across cultures might prove very interesting.

    Indeed, when I refer to the brain’s “preference” for eye contact, I am speaking of its “preferential” directing of attention and resources to processing that stimulus (the eye contact), rather than the individual person’s “liking” of the stimulus. There is a distinction between the person’s preference (i.e., individual likes and dislikes, which could involve more complex networks of brain activation) and the brain’s “preference” (which here I use to refer to where the brain “chooses” (again note a difference here between the individual’s “choice” and the brain’s “choice”) to direct its attention and resources). The brain “prefers” eye contact to the extent that it quickly mobilizes its attention and resources to process the direct eye gaze.

    When the brain puts its resources into processing something, it can come at the expense of other types of information processing. So it makes sense that it would be more difficult to concentrate on other types of mental problem-solving while looking at someone (as described in the article .

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  • Jesse Peterson

    We would like to use the following quote in digital and print mediums; “Eye contact is commonly considered a sign of self-confidence and a means for emotional connection.” from Source: Erin Falconer, “Look Me in the Eyes—From Eye Contact to ‘Fear Blindness,’”Brain Blogger, December 23, 2008. Please let me know if this is a possibility and what the process is to get permissions for this.

    Thank you so much
    Jesse Peterson
    Franklin Covey

Erin Falconer, MS, PhD

Erin Falconer, MS, PhD, has published several refereed journal articles that have a neuroscience/psychology focus. She is currently in marketing and communications for a ‘brain biotech’ company that offers brain medicine and health solutions to clinicians, researchers, pharmaceutical companies and US managed care. She holds a MS degree (Neuroscience) where she investigated the role of stress and hormones on the growth of new neurons in the adult brain (neurogenesis). She has since wrote and designed studies investigating the Placebo Effect in Parkinson’s Disease and PTSD. For her PhD dissertation, she delineated a brain model of PTSD using behavioral assessments, functional and structural neuroimaging and electrophysiological brain measurements.

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