Research Suggests Eye Contact Activates Autonomic Nervous System Even During Video Calls

New research from Tampere University in Finland discovered that eye contact throughout video calls could elicit similar psychophysiological responses than those in real, in-individual eye contact.

Research Suggests Eye Contact Activates Autonomic Nervous System Even During Video Calls

Videoconferencing has become more commonplace than ever. Particularly now, as the coronavirus pandemic limits social interactions, people are relying on video calls to connect with family and friends and to work from home.

Although a mere video call can not replace the in-person contact, new research suggests that our affective responses to another’s eye contact could also be quite similar during a video and in-person interaction.

The recently revealed study investigated physical reactions to eye contact in various conditions. The researchers compared the reactions caused by seeing another person’s direct and averted gaze in three situations: in-person interplay, a video call, and simply watching a video.

In these situations, they measured the individuals’ skin conductance and activation of facial muscles. Modifications in skin conductance reflect the activation of the autonomic nervous system, which is an indicator of effect, whereas the activation of facial muscles reflects the positivity or negativity of the effect.

Corroborating previous research, in-person eye contact was discovered to elicit a heightened autonomic arousal response. More importantly, this eye contact effect was noticed when the other individual was seen over a bidirectional video call.

When the other individual was only seen on video, the direct gaze, in contrast, didn’t similarly activate the autonomic nervous system. In addition, direct gaze was discovered to induce facial reactions related to positive emotion in all three situations.

In different words, the mere perception of direct gaze activated the zygomatic or “smile” muscles and relaxed the corrugator or “frown” muscles.