Social decisions affect neural activity to perceived dynamic gaze

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Gaze direction, a cue of both social and spatial attention, is known to modulate early neural responses to faces e.g. N170. However, findings in the literature have been inconsistent, likely reflecting differences in stimulus characteristics and task requirements. Here, we investigated the effect of task on neural responses to dynamic gaze changes: away and toward transitions (resulting or not in eye contact). Subjects performed, in random order, social (away/toward them) and non-social (left/right) judgment tasks on these stimuli. Overall, in the non-social task, results showed a larger N170 to gaze aversion than gaze motion toward the observer. In the social task, however, this difference was no longer present in the right hemisphere, likely reflecting an enhanced N170 to gaze motion toward the observer. Our behavioral and event-related potential data indicate that performing social judgments enhances saliency of gaze motion toward the observer, even those that did not result in gaze contact. These data and that of previous studies suggest two modes of processing visual information: a ‘default mode’ that may focus on spatial information; a ‘socially aware mode’ that might be activated when subjects are required to make social judgments. The exact mechanism that allows switching from one mode to the other remains to be clarified.

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