Whether a monkey is looking to the left or merely watching another monkey looking that way, the same neurons in his brain are firing, according to researchers at the Duke University Medical Center.
“We speculate that the neurons’ activity may lie beneath critical social behavior, such as joint attention,” said Michael Platt, Ph.D., Duke professor of neurobiology and evolutionary anthropology and senior author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If social inputs to the neurons are disrupted, that might contribute to the social deficits seen in autism and other disorders.”
People spontaneously follow the gaze of other people, and this joint attention helps promote social bonding, enhance learning, and may even be necessary for the development of language. People who can’t do these things are at a decided disadvantage, and may fail to develop normal patterns of social interaction, Platt said.
In fact, the impulse to follow the direction of another monkey’s eyes was so strong, monkeys sometimes strayed from the assigned light detection task, for which they were rewarded with juice, and instead followed the gaze of a monkey they saw in the projected image.
When I worked with monkeys, I heard a story that when one got out, it was easy to find because all of the still caged monkeys were staring up at it in the tree.