Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Eye gaze is a powerful cue for orienting attention in space. Studies examining whether gaze and symbolic cues recruit the same neural mechanisms have found mixed results. We tested whether there is a specialized attentional mechanism for social cues. We separately measured BOLD activity during orienting and reorienting attention following predictive gaze and symbolic cues. Results showed that gaze and symbolic cues exerted their influence through the same neural networks but also produced some differential modulations. Dorsal frontoparietal regions in left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and bilateral MT+/lateral occipital cortex only showed orienting effects for symbolic cues, whereas right posterior IPS showed larger validity effects following gaze cues. Both exceptions may reflect the greater automaticity of gaze cues: Symbolic orienting may require more effort, while disengaging attention during reorienting may be more difficult following gaze cues. Face-selective regions, identified with a face localizer, showed selective activations for gaze cues reflecting sensory processing but no attentional modulations. Therefore, no evidence was found linking face-selective regions to a hypothetical, specialized mechanism for orienting attention to gaze cues. However, a functional connectivity analysis showed greater connectivity between face-selective regions and right posterior IPS, posterior STS, and inferior frontal gyrus during gaze cueing, consistent with proposals that face-selective regions may send gaze signals to parts of the dorsal and ventral frontoparietal attention networks. Finally, although the default-mode network is thought to be involved in social cognition, this role does not extend to gaze orienting as these regions were more deactivated following gaze cues and showed less functional connectivity with face-selective regions during gaze cues.