Why does making direct eye contact with someone give you that feeling of a special connection? Perhaps because it excites newly discovered “eye cells” in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions and social interactions. This new type of neuron was discovered in a Rhesus macaque. If humans have these neurons too, it may be that they are impaired in disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, which affect eye contact and social interactions.
“These are cells that have been tuned by evolution to look at the eye, and they extract information about who you are, and most importantly, are you making eye contact with me,” says Gothard. Other eye cells fired depending on whether the monkey in the video was behaving in a friendly, aggressive or neutral manner, but not in response to eye contact.
Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the work, says it is a “plausible hypothesis” that humans also have eye cells. “There are a lot of similarities between human and monkey visual systems,” she says. “The human brain belongs to a species that is very social and very visual.”