Here’s Looking at You, Kid: The Science of Social Vision


Bogart.  Casablanca.  1942.  Possibly one of the most famous movie quotes of all time, and the anthem of eye contact and social gaze.  Here’s looking at you, kid.  What makes that moment so tender?  Perhaps it’s Bogie’s voice, or  his delicate elevation of Ingrid Bergman’s chin, or her misty eyes.  More likely, it’s a combination of all these things together with the context in which it occurs in the film.  It is emblematic of what scientists now call Social Vision.

A caveat, here, before we go on.  I never had much interest in Sociology as an academic discourse.  While a freshman in college I took the requisite introductory course and I kid you not, I have no recollection of it whatsoever.  I can vividly remember the names and appearances of every one of my other undergraduate teachers, but whoever taught us Sociology is a blur to me.  All the more telling since our college had a well-known graduate school – the Wurzweiler School of Social Work.  But I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Wurzweiler and a Wurlitzer.  Speaking of Wurlitzers, my piano lessons also failed to  engage me, though I’m sure Settlement Music School supplied me with some valuable tools nonetheless.

All that has changed now.  My interactions with patients who are on the Autistic Spectrum, and getting to appreciate their modes of thinking and looking has given me a new appreciation for sociology.  I am not alone.  A body of science has now merged vision and sociology, culminating in works such as The Science of Social Vision, the most recent entry in the Oxford Series in Visual Cognition.  Not surprisingly, much of this work is oriented toward the observation that most children with ASD have significant difficulty attaining or maintaining eye contact.  You can obtain a sneak preview of the book here, and learn more about the social science of vision and its broad implications at this site.

In the introduction to The Science of Social Vision, Ken Nakayama writes:  Vision at its simplest, according to Marr, is “knowing what is where by looking“; but he goes on to say that no single explanation can suffice to explain what constitutes vision …. The exciting implication is that vision must be many things, serving myriad functions, many of which are yet to be discovered …. Vision’s place in psychology has expanded dramatically in scope from a simple cortical image of the retina to the whole brain.  There is a role for vision almost everywhere.

With specific regard to social vision and the importance of reading social cues, Nakayama notes the importance of specific areas in the brain that mediate detection and discrimination of faces, every bit as significant as areas that distinguish motion, color and other attributes of vision.  He concludes: “If the social brain hypothesis is anywhere near correct, then our ideas regarding the function of the visual system needs to be re-evaluated.”

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of several best-selling books, one of which is Blink, short for the visual functions that seemingly occur within the blink of an eye.  Chapter One of this book is about The Theory of Thin Slices, a subject which is elaborated in The Science of Social Vision in a chapter entitled Thin-Slice Vision.  A visual thin slice is defined as a nonverbal excerpt of expressive behavior sampled from the behavioral stream typically limited to 30 seconds in duration, and involving moving or dynamic stimuli rather than static stimuli.  Regarding faces, this means monitoring the visual meaning expressed by eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and the three-dimensional context of eyes and head within body dynamics and non-verbal language.

Ami Klin and his colleagues at Yale describe Autism first and foremost as a neurodevelopmental disorder impacting foundational, social adaptive skills.  A seminal paper was published by Klin’s group in 2002 on visual fixation patterns during social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism.  Normal adults focused on eye regions about 65% of the time, whereas autistic adults looked at eyes only 25% of the time. The chapter on Thin-Slice Vision in The Science of Social Vision suggests that focal attention directed toward the eyes may form the elementary foundation of thin-slice judgments.  In a very real sense, then, many children who are on the autistic spectrum are functionally blind to the snapshots of a social world in which they are expected to engage.

As I read through the chapters in The Science of Social Vision, listened to the interview of Gladwell, and watched the video of Klin, I was struck once again by how much of what we do in developmental optometry and optometric vision therapy dwells on attaining a balance and flexibility between focal and non-focal skills; between slow processing and fast processing; between static stimuli and dynamic stimuli.  How this occurs with patients on the spectrum has been beautifully elaborated by one of our visionhelp colleagues, Dr. Carl Hillier.  And of course, the personal interaction with the child and family that so readily differentiates us from practitioners who pay lip service to these factors, ironically lacking in the social graces or interest to engage in a broader vision of the visual system.

Ah, if only I knew in College what I know now, I would have paid more attention to Sociology.  But can’t we say that of many subjects that failed to engage us as children?  Here’s looking at you, kid.

– Leonard J. Press, O.D., FCOVD, FAAO

3 thoughts on “Here’s Looking at You, Kid: The Science of Social Vision

  1. My favorite part of the Malcolm Gladwell interview is at 23:15 when he talks about how stereotypes have replaced real knowledge and experience. It rings true when professionals doubt the efficacy of vision therapy when they haven’t reevaluated the scientific evidence that has been rolling out over the past decade (and prior!).

  2. Len, as always, nicely done. Keep on being a book rat and reading things that inspire. And re: Casablanca…..We’ll always have Paris

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