Neurocognitive mechanisms of gaze-expression interactions in face processing and social attention.
The face conveys a rich source of non-verbal information used during social communication. While research has revealed how specific facial channels such as emotional expression are processed, little is known about the prioritization and integration of multiple cues in the face during dyadic exchanges. Classic models of face perception have emphasized the segregation of dynamic vs. static facial features along independent information processing pathways. Here we review recent behavioral and neuroscientific evidence suggesting that within the dynamic stream, concurrent changes in eye gaze and emotional expression can yield early independent effects on face judgments and covert shifts of visuospatial attention. These effects are partially segregated within initial visual afferent processing volleys, but are subsequently integrated in limbic regions such as the amygdala or via reentrant visual processing volleys. This spatiotemporal pattern may help to resolve otherwise perplexing discrepancies across behavioral studies of emotional influences on gaze-directed attentional cueing. Theoretical explanations of gaze-expression interactions are discussed, with special consideration of speed-of-processing (discriminability) and contextual (ambiguity) accounts. Future research in this area promises to reveal the mental chronometry of face processing and interpersonal attention, with implications for understanding how social referencing develops in infancy and is impaired in autism and other disorders of social cognition.
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