Eye contact has great importance in human communication, already at the early age of a few days. Eye contact creates intimacy and conveys information - and it is interesting to note how it differs from one culture to another and how it is affected by mental and neurological conditions

Eye contact, the act of directly engaging another person's gaze, may appear a simple and trivial gesture. However, even seemingly trivial actions can hold great significance. Eye contact plays an important role in non-verbal communication, exerting a profound effect on our brain activity and emotions.

In many animal species eye contact elicits a negative response, often perceived as a threat. In humans, in contrast, eye contact is fundamental for communication and social interaction on a psychological level, and on a neural level, it regulates the development and activity of our social brain - the network of brain regions devoted to social interaction and behavior. Eye contact provides us with information about the person facing us, allows us to express intimacy and exert social control. For example, by looking into someone’s eyes we can understand where their attention is directed and gain insight into their mental state. 

As we will see, humans have a natural attraction to eye contact, and when someone turns their gaze at us, it can change certain aspects of our cognitive processing, such as our attention or reaction time - a phenomenon known as the eye contact effect. When do we gain this attraction to eye contact? How does eye contact affect the brain and our behavior? And what happens when there is a disorder in the ability to make eye contact or use it for communication?

In contrast to many animal species, where eye contact elicits a negative response, in humans it is fundamental for communication and social interaction. Dogs staring into each other’s eyes | Shutterstock, Astrid Ave Je


Looking Into A Baby's Eyes

To test at which stage we acquire the attraction for eye contact, a group of researchers from the University of London examined how newborn infants react to direct eye contact. The researchers found that infants can distinguish between faces that make direct eye contact and those whose gaze is directed elsewhere from as early as two to five days old. When presented with photos of faces that appear to make direct eye contact, that is, staring directly at the camera, the babies tended to stare at these photos for a longer time compared to photos with faces whose gaze was directed to the side. These findings suggest that the ability to recognize direct eye contact is innate and present from a very young age, highlighting the importance of direct eye contact in humans.

Infants demonstrate the ability to discern between faces making eye contact and those looking away as early as two to five days old. A mother gazes into the eyes of her newborn baby |  Shutterstock, Vitalinka


Seeing Empathy In The Eyes

But why is it crucial for a newborn to recognize eye contact? Eye contact is a principal component in non-verbal communication, and one of its effects is creating a sense of closeness between people. While direct eye contact might be uncomfortable, especially between strangers, overcoming this initial awkwardness can significantly enhance emotional bonding.  

In an experiment conducted in the 1980s, researchers examined how eye contact between a man and a woman, who were strangers, affected their feeling of closeness. The subjects were asked to stare into each other’s eyes for two minutes, while subjects in the control group were asked to stare at each other’s hands for the same duration. In post-experiment questionnaires, subjects who engaged in direct eye contact reported stronger feelings of affection towards each other compared to members of the control group. 

In another study researchers found that individuals with a stronger tendency to engage in eye contact scored higher on empathy questionnaires. These researchers introduced the term “empathic gaze”, which means that individuals who are more empathetic are more inclined to search for social cues in others’ eyes. Such engagement enables emotional synchrony, understanding the emotional state of another person and mirroring their physiological responses, thereby enhancing social interactions.   

Subjects who engaged in mutual gaze reported stronger feelings of affection towards one another. A couple on a date, not making eye contact | Shutterstock, Johan Larson


Eye Contact, Brain Contact

On the cognitive level, studies that looked into the effect of eye contact, using photos of individuals who stared at the camera compared to individuals looking away, found that direct eye contact had a significant influence on attention allocation. For example, in a sophisticated experiment participants were tasked with identifying a target in the form of a star that appeared next to a photograph of a person’s face. In some of the photos the photographed subject was looking directly at the camera, seemingly making eye contact with the viewer. In the rest of the photos the photographed subject was not looking directly at the camera. The researchers measured the time it took for the participants to locate the target and found that images simulating eye contact captured the participants' attention, thereby slowing down their response time.

As expected, the changes that eye contact confers to behavior and interpersonal communication are also accompanied by unique patterns of brain activity. Direct eye contact between two individuals leads to increased brain synchronicity, which is to say that the brain waves patterns of two individuals who lock gazes become increasingly similar. Studies have shown that the degree of synchrony in brain activity between two people is associated with better social interaction between them - a verbal manifestation of the phrase “on the same wavelength”

Aside from psychological and cognitive effects, eye contact also has physiological effects, triggering a state of arousal, commonly assessed experimentally by measuring the skin’s electrical conductance - a metric influenced by perspiration.

***Eye contact triggers physiological arousal. A mother staring into the eyes of her young son | Shutterstock, Lopolo

Eye Contact - A Cultural Perspective 

We have seen that eye contact affects our emotions, cognition and physiology. However, this association seems to work both ways: the cultural upbringing and the social norms within which we were raised affect our inclination to make eye contact. In Western cultures, it is generally more acceptable to maintain eye contact during a conversation compared to Eastern cultures. Studies have found that Japanese managers make less eye contact during negotiations compared to their Western counterparts, and that Japanese participants tend to make less eye contact when thinking about an answer to a question compared to Canadian participants. This may be because, in Japanese culture, avoiding eye contact is interpreted as a sign of respect and honor. Furthermore, people from East Asian cultures are more likely to perceive faces that make eye contact as displaying anger, unapproachability and unpleasantness, to a greater extent compared to people from Western cultures.   


Eye contact affects our emotions, cognition and physiology. A couple looking into each other’s eyes | Shutterstock, PeopleImages.com - Yuri A


Avoiding Eye Contact

Venturing across the globe isn't necessary to notice the diverse tendencies people have regarding eye contact. A study conducted in the United States found that individuals suffering from social anxiety reported a heightened apprehension towards eye contact and a tendency to avoid it, compared to individuals who do not suffer from this condition. This apprehension and avoidance of eye contact noticeably decreased following 8-12 weeks of medicinal treatment of the anxiety condition. In an experiment that followed teenagers with social anxiety, researchers found that upon making eye contact, these individuals experienced increased muscle excitation and a surge in brain activity, unlike their teenage counterparts who did not suffer from social anxiety. These findings help us understand why people with social anxiety avoid eye contact - while a moderate level of arousal in response to eye contact is beneficial for social engagement, by improving concentration and involvement, too much excitation may be perceived uncomfortable, prompting avoidance. 

Much like people with social anxiety, individuals on the autism spectrum also struggle with making eye contact. Although identifying specific signs of autism during early developmental stages can be difficult, longitudinal studies tracking participants over extended periods demonstrate that infants later diagnosed with autism show a regression in the tendency to make eye contact, already noticeable as early as two months of age. Early avoidance of eye contact likely affects the subsequent stages of social and communicative development in these children. Researchers hope that further research on this topic will aid with early detection of autism, as well as with providing appropriate therapeutic support.     

A study that examined brain activity in subjects with autism compared to neurotypical subjects (individuals without autism), during direct eye contact, found differences in  brain activity patterns. This suggests that information related to eye contact is processed and interpreted differently in the brains of individuals with autism. Furthermore, unlike neurotypical subjects, individuals with autism showed no brain synchronicity following direct eye contact. In another study, researchers managed to improve eye contact in individuals with autism by administering oxytocin, a hormone associated with social behavior and cognition. 

Such studies help to better understand disorders and conditions such as social anxiety and autism, and in developing novel treatments to assist those dealing with them.

Similar to individuals with social anxiety, individuals on the autism spectrum often find eye contact challenging. Illustration of a person avoiding eye contact | Michael S. Helfenbein


Looking A Robot In The Eyes

Technological advancements influence the way in which we interact with other people. Nowadays, a significant portion of our communication is virtual -  whether through video calls with close friends on platforms like WhatsApp or during professional meetings on Zoom. Psychologists have therefore raised the question, how does eye contact in these digital environments affect our psychological and physiological responses. 

In a study that examined eye contact during video conferences, it was found that direct eye contact elicits an arousal response even when occurring through a screen. In contrast, in virtual reality (VR) no discernible difference was found in the level of arousal caused by an avatar looking directly at us compared to one looking away. In another study a similar experiment was conducted using a robot, and researchers found that direct eye contact with a robot led to an increase in arousal levels, albeit to a lesser extent compared to the increase observed following direct eye contact with a human.

Direct eye contact triggers an arousal response even when it occurs through a screen. A man talking to a woman during a video call | Shutterstock, UladzimirZuyeu

The field of research that deals with eye contact is both fascinating and complex. Many studies in the field rely on responses to “eye contact” with photographs, which naturally cannot fully capture the essence of real-life interactions. Moreover, experiments that examine eye contact between two individuals often take place under the artificial settings of a laboratory, which do not always  replicate natural encounters, where eye contact occurs spontaneously and comfortably over a natural period of time.

However, despite these limitations, studies in the field have yielded interesting insights, and demonstrated that eye contact affects cognitive and emotional processes by altering brain activity in brain regions associated with social behavior. So, the next time you find yourself walking down the street, consider lifting your gaze from your phone and making eye contact with passersby - who knows, it might lead to an intriguing interaction.