To evaluate the effects of central vision loss (CVL) on mutual gaze perception (knowing whether somebody else is looking at you), an important nonverbal visual cue in social interactions.
Twenty-three persons with CVL (visual acuity 20/50 to 20/200), 16 with a bilateral central scotoma and 7 without, and 23 age-matched control subjects completed a gaze perception task and a brief questionnaire. They adjusted the eyes of a life-size virtual head on a monitor at a 1-m distance until they either appeared to be looking straight at them or were at the extreme left/right or up/down positions at which the eyes still appeared to be looking toward them (defining the range of mutual gaze in the horizontal and vertical planes).
The nonscotoma group did not differ from the control subjects in any gaze task measure. However, the gaze direction judgments of the scotoma group had significantly greater variability than those of the nonscotoma and control groups (p < 0.001). In addition, their mutual gaze range tended to be wider (p = 0.15), suggesting a more liberal judgment criterion. Contrast sensitivity was the strongest predictor of variability in gaze direction judgments followed by self-reported difficulties.
Our results suggest that mutual gaze perception is relatively robust to CVL. However, a follow-up study that simulates less-than-optimal viewing conditions of everyday social interactions is needed. The gaze perception task holds promise as a research tool for investigating the effects of vision impairment on mutual gaze judgments. Self-reported difficulty and contrast sensitivity were both independent predictors of gaze perception performance, suggesting that the task captured higher-order as well as low-level visual abilities.