Skip to Content

Member Spotlight: Nathan (Nate) Caruana

Think about all the people you have crossed paths with today: fellow commuters on your way to work, the barista who made your morning coffee, the strangers you shared an elevator ride with. Our lives are filled with social interactions, but have you ever stopped to consider just how we seamlessly navigate this constant stream of social exchange?

One way is through non-verbal cues like eye gaze, that we use to coordinate our attention with others, by attending to the same thing (a phenomenon known as "joint-attention"). Surprisingly, until recently, most research into social interaction including joint-attention, was particularly non-interactive, involving the observation of videos or static images of social stimuli. Dr Caruana's research is changing this approach, by making social cognition research, interactive, through the use of virtual reality.

Dr Nathan Caruana

Nate is a CCD research fellow in the Belief Formation and Person Perception Programs, based at Macquarie University. He uses virtual reality to test how people use eye movements and eye contact to judge the intentions of others, share experiences and coordinate attention. He developed a game (demo here) where participants work collaboratively with a virtual partner to catch a burglar hiding in a scene of six virtual houses. On some trials, the participant finds the burglar, and on other trials their partner finds the burglar. Whoever locates the burglar first must establish eye-contact and use their eye gaze to direct their partner to the 'bad guy'. Combined with neuro-imaging technology (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging and event-related potentials), this novel use of virtual reality has helped identify the brain areas involved when people initiate and respond to a joint-attention bid, and the timing of brain processing during these tasks. It also has very real-world applications.

For people with Autism spectrum disorder, joint-attention - and social interactions in general - can be highly stressful and confusing. Using his virtual reality task, Nate found that, compared with typical developed adults, autistic adults were slightly slower and made more errors in their attempts to spot the burglar with the help of their virtual partner (Caruana et al., 2017). However, with practice their performance improved without any direct intervention. Crucially, by asking autistic adults about their subjective experience of the task, new insights have been gained into the strategies used to overcome social difficulties - and the potential benefit of virtual reality as a tool to further investigate and support challenges in autism. Specifically, Nate found that whilst virtual interactions are cognitively challenging for autistic individuals, they are less intimidating and stressful than real-world face-to-face encounters. Nate is currently developing more immersive virtual interaction paradigms that can be used to future explore social difficulties in autism, and ways of delivering VR tools to support the autistic community.

In current work conducted with patients with schizophrenia, show that early visual unconscious face processing in patients is intact, but as Nate explains, "when a task requires more social evaluation, for example, understanding the intentions of another person, this is when we see differences emerge". As such, patients with schizophrenia show differences in how they complete the interactive virtual reality task when compared to autistic adults - making more errors when responding to joint attention bids, finding it difficult to differentiate between gaze shifts that are incidental or communicative.

The calibre of Nate's research is evident in the number of awards and grants he has received. His PhD awarded in 2015 received the Vice Chancellors award as well as the Excellence in Higher Degree Research - Humanities, Business and Social Sciences award and the David Hall Prize from Macquarie University. Over the past four years, he has won seven awards and been given 10 research grants. The grants reflect the interdisciplinary nature of Nate's work, including a Neural Markers grant investigating "Decoding joint attention processes using interactive eye-tracking and multivoxel pattern analysis", and a CCD Cross Program grant with members of Belief Formation and Person Perception Programs: "Evaluating the achievement of joint attention in schizophrenia: An ERP and virtual reality study". Nate credits the CCD for helping him build his track record as an early career researcher in order to obtain his current Macquarie University Research Fellowship.

The next step for Nate is to develop truly immersive virtual reality paradigms that capture the interplay of multiple streams of non-verbal communication (e.g., eye gaze, head position, hand gestures) and to combine this with portable neuroimaging methods to capture the neural mechanisms that support dynamic social interactions.

In his autism work, Nate is passionate about working with the autism and autistic communities to set a research agenda that benefits his research stakeholders - to ultimately deliver knowledge and technology that has the potential to make social interactions less stressful and confusing for autistic individuals.

To keep up-to-date with Nate's research, follow his research:

Further Information

Contact Details

Telephone: +61 2 9850 4127
Email : ccd@mq.edu.au
Web : www.ccd.edu.au

Sign up to receive CCD event and research announcements

Upcoming CCD Seminars

Full Seminar List


Macquarie Univeristy Logo University of Western Australia Logo The University of Sydney Logo

University of New South Wales Logo University of New England logo