Katalin M Gothard
Videos with rich social and emotional content elicit natural social behaviors in primates. Indeed, while watching videos of conspecifics, monkeys engage in eye contact, gaze follow, and reciprocate facial expressions. We hypothesized that the frequency and timing of eyeblinks also depends on the social signals contained in videos. We monitored the eyeblinks of four male adult macaques while they watched videos of conspecifics displaying facial expressions with direct or averted gaze. The instantaneous blink rate of all four animals decreased during videos. The temporal synchrony of blinking, however, increased in response to segments depicting appeasing or aggressive facial expressions directed at the viewer. Two of the four monkeys, who systematically reciprocated the direct gaze of the stimulus monkeys, also showed eyeblink entrainment, a temporal coordination of blinking between social partners engaged in dyadic interactions. Together, our results suggest that in macaques, as in humans, blinking depends not only on the physiological imperative to protect the eyes and spread a film of tears over the cornea, but also on several socio-emotional factors.
Primates explore the visual world through eye-movement sequences. Saccades bring details of interest into the fovea, while fixations stabilize the image. During natural vision, social primates direct their gaze at the eyes of others to communicate their own emotions and intentions and to gather information about the mental states of others. Direct gaze is an integral part of facial expressions that signals cooperation or conflict over resources and social status. Despite the great importance of making and breaking eye contact in the behavioral repertoire of primates, little is known about the neural substrates that support these behaviors. Here we show that the monkey amygdala contains neurons that respond selectively to fixations on the eyes of others and to eye contact. These "eye cells" share several features with the canonical, visually responsive neurons in the monkey amygdala; however, they respond to the eyes only when they fall within the fovea of the viewer, either as a result of a deliberate saccade or as eyes move into the fovea of the viewer during a fixation intended to explore a different feature. The presence of eyes in peripheral vision fails to activate the eye cells. These findings link the primate amygdala to eye movements involved in the exploration and selection of details in visual scenes that contain socially and emotionally salient features.
Facial expressions reflect decisions about the perceived meaning of social stimuli and the expected socio-emotional outcome of responding (or not) with a reciprocating expression. The decision to produce a facial expression emerges from the joint activity of a network of structures that include the amygdala and multiple, interconnected cortical and subcortical motor areas. Reciprocal transformations between these sensory and motor signals give rise to distinct brain states that promote, or impede the production of facial expressions. The muscles of the upper and lower face are controlled by anatomically distinct motor areas. Facial expressions engage to a different extent the lower and upper face and thus require distinct patterns of neural activity distributed across multiple facial motor areas in ventrolateral frontal cortex, the supplementary motor area, and two areas in the midcingulate cortex. The distributed nature of the decision manifests in the joint activation of multiple motor areas that initiate the production of facial expression. Concomitantly multiple areas, including the amygdala, monitor ongoing overt behaviors (the expression itself) and the covert, autonomic responses that accompany emotional expressions. As the production of facial expressions is brought into the framework of formal decision making, an important challenge will be to incorporate autonomic and visceral states into decisions that govern the receiving-emitting cycle of social signals.
Gaze following is a basic building block of social behavior that has been observed in multiple species, including primates. The absence of gaze following is associated with abnormal development of social cognition, such as in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Some social deficits in ASD, including the failure to look at eyes and the inability to recognize facial expressions, are ameliorated by intranasal administration of oxytocin (IN-OT). Here we tested the hypothesis that IN-OT might enhance social processes that require active engagement with a social partner, such as gaze following. Alternatively, IN-OT may only enhance the perceptual salience of the eyes, and may not modify behavioral responses to social signals. To test this hypothesis, we presented four monkeys with videos of conspecifics displaying natural behaviors. Each video was viewed multiple times before and after the monkeys received intranasally either 50 IU of OT or saline. We found that despite a gradual decrease in attention to the repeated viewing of the same videos (habituation), IN-OT consistently increased the frequency of gaze following saccades. Further analysis confirmed that these behaviors did not occur randomly, but rather predictably in response to the same segments of the videos. These findings suggest that in response to more naturalistic social stimuli IN-OT enhances the propensity to interact with a social partner rather than merely elevating the perceptual salience of the eyes. In light of these findings, gaze following may serve as a metric for pro-social effects of oxytocin that target social action more than social perception.