Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Mental-State Attribution Drives Rapid, Reflexive Gaze Following

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Mental-State Attribution Drives Rapid, Reflexive Gaze Following

Article excerpt

When presented with a face stimulus whose gaze is diverted, observers' attention shifts to locations fixated by the face. Such "gaze following" has been characterized by some previous studies as a consequence of sophisticated theory of mind processes, but by others (particularly those employing the "gaze-cuing" paradigm) as an involuntary response that is triggered directly and reflexively by the physical features of a face. To address this apparent contradiction, we modified the gaze-cuing paradigm using a deception procedure to convince observers that prerecorded videos of an experimenter making head turns and wearing mirrored goggles were a "live" video link to an adjacent room. In two experiments, reflexive gaze following was found when observers believed that the model was wearing transparent goggles and could see, but it was significantly reduced when they believed that the experimenter wore opaque goggles and could not see. These results indicate that the attribution of the mental state "seeing" to a face plays a role in controlling even reflexive gaze following.

Humans exhibit a robust and well-documented tendency to direct their eyes and attention toward locations fixated by others. This "gaze-following" response forms a key component of sociocognitive and linguistic development (Baldwin, 1995; Brooks & Meltzoff, 2005; Carpenter, Nagell, & Tomasello, 1998; Frith & Frith, 2007). It is subserved by large-scale, specialized neural networks in the human brain (Hietanen, Nummenmaa, Nyman, Parkkola, & Hämäläinen, 2006) and is found in a diverse range of animal species (Emery, 2000; Schloegl, Kotrschal, & Bugnyar, 2007; Tomasello, Call, & Hare, 1998), emphasizing both its key role in human interaction and its broad adaptive significance. Despite its obvious importance, however, there is still disagreement as to the nature of the cognitive and neural processes underpinning gaze following in humans.

Typically, research in cognitive development has adopted a naturalistic experimental design initially pioneered by Scaife and Bruner (1975), in which the orienting response of the child is elicited by the experimenter's eye movements or head turns in various settings (for reviews, see Flom, Lee, & Muir, 2007; Moore & Dunham, 1995). Studies of this type have often linked gaze following to the development of a theory of mind (ToM)-the ability to understand behavior in terms of its underlying mental states. In particular, several recent studies have concluded that infants 12 months or older follow the gaze direction of others because they want to see what the other person is seeing or attending to (e.g., Baldwin, 1995; Brooks & Meltzoff, 2005; Caron, Kiel, Dayton, & Butler, 2002; Chow, Poulin-Dubois, & Lewis, 2008; Meltzoff & Brooks, 2008; Moll & Tomasello, 2004; Woodward, 2003; for reviews, see Gomez, 2005, and Meltzoff & Brooks, 2007). In other words, gaze following results from the attribution of a perceptual or attentional mental state to the other person and requires voluntary control-an interpretation that is in line with our folk-psychological intuitions.

However, despite their intuitive appeal, mentalistic accounts of gaze following are challenged by results of a thus far largely unrelated line of research in adult cognitive psychology. Although an experimenter's head or eye movements-which are typically used in infant studies-undoubtedly constitute the most "natural" stimulus for gaze following and lend themselves readily to manipulation of mental-state attribution, these movements cannot be controlled adequately to permit the assessment of rapid components of gaze following. In an attempt to circumvent this limitation, many studies of human adults have employed the "gaze-cuing paradigm," an experimental procedure derived from Posner's (e.g., 1980) seminal studies of visual attention that can provide an objective performance measure even of rapid, covert attention shifts. …

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