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Eye contact in active and passive viewing: Event-related brain potential evidence from a combined eye tracking and EEG study

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Stephani, T., Kirk Driller, K., Dimigen, O., & Sommer, W. (2020). Eye contact in active and passive viewing: Event-related brain potential evidence from a combined eye tracking and EEG study. Neuropsychologia, 143: 107478. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107478.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0006-A469-B
Abstract
Eye contact is a salient social cue which is assumed to influence early brain processes involved in face perception. The N170 component in the event-related potential (ERP) has frequently been reported to be larger to faces with an averted rather than direct gaze towards the observer. In most studies, however, this effect has been investigated in comparatively artificial, passive settings where participants were instructed to fixate their gaze while observing occasional gaze changes in stimulus faces. Yet, it is unclear whether similar mechanisms are in place during naturalistic gaze interactions involving the continuous interplay of directed and averted gaze between the communication partners. To fill this gap, we compared passive viewing of gaze change sequences with an active condition where participants' own gaze continuously interacted with the gaze of a stimulus face; while recording ERPs and monitoring gaze with eye tracking. In addition, we investigated the relevance of emotional facial expressions for gaze processing. For both passive viewing and active interaction, N170 amplitudes were larger when the gaze of stimulus faces was averted rather than directed at the participants. Furthermore, eye contact decreased P300 amplitudes in both conditions. Emotional facial expression influenced N170 amplitudes but did not elicit an early posterior negativity nor did it interact with gaze direction. We conclude that comparable mechanisms of gaze perception are in place in gaze interaction as compared to passive viewing, encouraging the further study of the eye contact effect in naturalistic settings.