We all know the power of eye contact with another human being. It’s something special that helps us convey a lot of information and in turn tells us a lot about the other person. When we make eye contact with someone, we are sharing an emotional and mental state.
Good friends only need a glance to communicate something. To lose oneself in the eyes of the loved one is to enter his world. Eye contact activates our social brain, our intentions and our emotions.
Today, a new study conducted with magnetic resonance imaging has revealed a lot of data on what activates eye contact in our brains in real time and in delayed mode. The first piece of information is that when we make eye contact, we synchronize our blinks with the other person. But that’s not all. Let’s look at this together.
It seems that eye contact activates the social brain and synchronizes the movements and blinks of the eyes of two people looking at each other. That is, there is a neural activation that reorganizes our response to other people.
Eye contact is one of the most notable automatic imitations. Moreover, it is the way of telling the other that we take care of them. It promotes social interaction and facilitates effective communication. The blinking of the eyes expresses a cognitive load that projects the inner state of a person.
Until now, brain imaging studies have only studied the brain activity of one person at a time. But the team of Norihiro Sadato, from the National Institute of Physiological Sciences of Japan, began to work with a new technique known as a hyper-scanner.
The study of eye contact
The results of this experiment show us what happens in the brain, in real time, when two people look each other in the eye for the first time. The hyper-scanner observed the brains of two people at the same time. All on separate functional MRI machines. The goal was then to make them communicate visually. In this study, Sadato’s team used 32 people, in pairs, and put them in two fMRI machines at the same time.
The experiment could not be performed with subjects looking at each other face to face because MRI imaging requires individuals to be inside a machine and to be completely still.
Each scanner was also equipped with a video screen and a camera. As the participants did not know each other, eye contact was completely new to everyone. The blinking of the eyes was used as a marker of synchronization between the participants.
The experiment measured the subjects’ brain activity in two distinct phases. In the first phase, they were shown a blank screen. Then, they were shown the image of their experienced partner (whom they did not know), first in real time, then with a 20 second delay in the image. They were instructed to focus on what the other person was thinking, their personality, or their feelings.
First, significant differences were noted in terms of brain activation of real-time eye contact. But also in the one with a few seconds of delay.
In real time, participants were more sensitive to the other person’s eye blinking than in the timeless images. There was also greater connectivity in the limbic mirror system, greater activation in the cerebellum.
The study showed that eye contact prepares the social brain to develop empathy . In addition, it activates the same areas of the brain in both people at the same time. Activation of the cerebellum helps predict the sensory consequences of actions.
Eye contact: the incredible capacity of our brain
The limbic system is associated with our ability to share and recognize emotions, which is fundamental for the emergence of empathy. There appears to be a strong mutual influence between the blinks of the eyes of the two people during eye contact.
This means that eye contact prepares the social brain to share the mental state of others and is the basis for effective social communication. Finally, this study showed that our brain distinguishes between real-time images and images recorded completely unconsciously. A fact which is revealed to us to be the most significant of all.