Other people’s gaze encoded as implied motion in the human brain

Arvid Guterstam, Andrew I. Wilterson, Davis Wachtell, Michael S.A. Graziano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Keeping track of other people’s gaze is an essential task in social cognition and key for successfully reading other people’s intentions and beliefs (theory of mind). Recent behavioral evidence suggests that we construct an implicit model of other people’s gaze, which may incorporate physically incoherent attributes such as a construct of force-carrying beams that emanate from the eyes. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and multivoxel pattern analysis to test the prediction that the brain encodes gaze as implied motion streaming from an agent toward a gazed-upon object. We found that a classifier, trained to discriminate the direction of visual motion, significantly decoded the gaze direction in static images depicting a sighted face, but not a blindfolded one, from brain activity patterns in the human motion-sensitive middle temporal complex (MT+) and temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). Our results demonstrate a link between the visual motion system and social brain mechanisms, in which the TPJ, a key node in theory of mind, works in concert with MT+ to encode gaze as implied motion. This model may be a fundamental aspect of social cognition that allows us to efficiently connect agents with the objects of their attention. It is as if the brain draws a quick visual sketch with moving arrows to help keep track of who is attending to what. This implicit, fluid-flow model of other people’s gaze may help explain culturally universal myths about the mind as an energy-like, flowing essence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13162-13167
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number23
StatePublished - Jun 9 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Gaze
  • Motion perception
  • Social cognition
  • Theory of mind
  • Visual attention


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