Several studies have been conducted in an attempt to determine the exact relationship between gaze perception and symptomology in schizophrenia (SCZ). However, the results of the studies were rather ambiguous and did not provide evidence that could positively influence interventions and treatments for clients suffering from SCZ. In particular, eye gaze direction and perception are strong indicators of intention and attention. Because the ability to accurately perceive eye gaze direction is directly related to social behavior, a trait that is impaired in those with SCZ, Ivy F. Tso of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, conducted a study that assessed the eye gaze perception of SCZ clients as compared to healthy controls (HC).
Tso and colleagues enrolled 26 clients with SCZ and 23 HCs in their study. They presented the participants with numerous facial stimuli of varying emotion, gaze direction, and head orientation. The subjects were asked to determine if the face they saw was looking at them or not. The stimuli were randomized to prevent bias. After numerous trials, the researchers discovered that the SCZ participants perceived that the faces were looking at them far more than the HC subjects did. Additionally, the emotion and orientation of the head in the picture influenced the perceived eye gaze direction for the SCZ participants.
The SCZ participants who inaccurately perceived the gaze direction also had more severe symptoms of SCZ, including lower IQ, decreased emotional functioning, and lower neurocognitive abilities. Tso believes that this behavior may be a result of impaired brain functioning, in particular, the paracingulate cortex and temporo-parietal regions, evident in clients with SCZ. “The present study showed that individuals with schizophrenia exhibited abnormal eye-contact perception characterized by over-attribution of self-directed intention to ambiguous gaze and more uncertainty when determining the self-referential nature of gaze,” said Tso. “These abnormalities are related to more severe negative symptoms and deficits in broader socio-emotional functioning in schizophrenia and warrant further investigations.”
Tso, I. F., Mui, M. L., Taylor, S. F., Deldin, P. J. (2012, January 16). Eye-Contact Perception in Schizophrenia: Relationship With Symptoms and Socioemotional Functioning. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026596
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