Why is eye contact so important?
The answer lies in a primal part of the brain called the cerebellum. The cerebellum helps predict the sensory consequences of actions and triggers the limbic mirror system, a set of brain areas that are active both when we move any part of the body, including the eyes, and when we observe someone else doing the same. The limbic system underlies our ability to recognise and share emotion and is critical to our capacity for empathy.
Studies have shown that people who are more empathic, (according to self-report questionnaires) have stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and for emotions. The mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in others and fire in the same way when we actually recreate that action ourselves. And, apart from imitation, they are responsible for a myriad of other sophisticated human behaviour and thought processes.
A study from Tampere University in Finland found that eye contact during video calls can elicit similar psychophysiological responses than those in genuine, in-person eye contact. Joanne Hietanen, the first author of the study says: "Our results imply that the autonomic arousal response to eye contact requires the perception of being seen by another. Another person's physical presence is not required for this effect. Unexpectedly, we also found that even when the other person was presented just on video, seeing direct gaze elicited the subtle facial reactions of smiling. This suggests that these facial reactions are highly automated responses to eye contact."
Smiling is in a sense, neurologically contagious, and so are the good feelings associated with them! The act of smiling can boost our dopamine and increase our feeling of happiness. Neurologist Dr. Isha Gupta confirms that smiling sparks a chemical change in the brain. She states, “Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression.”
Data using eye-tracking measures suggest that the mirror neuron system develops before 12 months of age, and that this system may help human infants understand other people's actions. Studies have shown that eye contact leads to greater language skills by age 2. Early nonverbal forms of communication such as eye contact and joint attention, are vitally important for laying a solid foundation for language to develop. It has also been speculated that mirror neurons may provide the neurological basis of human self-awareness.
But for some, making and maintaining eye contact can be incredibly difficult. In 2006, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni published a paper in Nature Neuroscience linking mirror neuron dysfunction to autism. “Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens the ability of these patients to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, thus making social interactions particularly difficult for these patients. Patients with autism often have motor problems and language problems. It turns out that a deficit in mirror neurons can also, in principle, explain these other major symptoms.”
So, it’s clear that good eye contact from an early age helps to create those all important neuro pathways associated with empathy and helps strengthen the ability to communicate and understand the world around us. Understanding the impact a lack of this vital connection can make on a person’s development can help us be more sympathetic to a person’s struggles. And of course, don’t forget the power of a smile to lift the spirits of those around us.
Lots of love, Zoë xx
Source: Psychologytoday.com | ncbi.nlm.nih.gov | allinhealth.org | thinkbig.com
Intuitive healer, horse whisperer and animal communicator who works with the angels to offer healing and guidance to all beings.