The eyes have it: the neuroethology, function and evolution of social gaze.
Gaze is an important component of social interaction. The function, evolution and neurobiology of gaze processing are therefore of interest to a number of researchers. This review discusses the evolutionary role of social gaze in vertebrates (focusing on primates), and a hypothesis that this role has changed substantially for primates compared to other animals. This change may have been driven by morphological changes to the face and eyes of primates, limitations in the facial anatomy of other vertebrates, changes in the ecology of the environment in which primates live, and a necessity to communicate information about the environment, emotional and mental states. The eyes represent different levels of signal value depending on the status, disposition and emotional state of the sender and receiver of such signals. There are regions in the monkey and human brain which contain neurons that respond selectively to faces, bodies and eye gaze. The ability to follow another individual's gaze direction is affected in individuals with autism and other psychopathological disorders, and after particular localized brain lesions. The hypothesis that gaze following is "hard-wired" in the brain, and may be localized within a circuit linking the superior temporal sulcus, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex is discussed.