Would you look a monster in the eye? Yes, study says
Twelve-year-old Julian Levy, now 14, is shown wearing an eye-tracking camera that was used in a study that tracked whether subjects made eye contact with monsters, as well as other humans.
Published Saturday, November 3, 2012 7:00AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, November 3, 2012 7:43AM EDT
A dinnertime conversation between a scientist and his young son has led to a fascinating new study that combines sophisticated scientific methods and technology with monsters, in a bid to track how and why humans make eye contact.
Alan Kingstone and his son, Julian Levy, were chatting at the dining-room table in their Vancouver home about how it is difficult -- if not impossible -- to determine whether humans are hardwired to look into another person's eyes, or simply the centre of their face.
Kingstone, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, was explaining to Levy that many people believed it was impossible to make the distinction, since the eyes are located at the centre of the face and humans tend to focus their gaze on the centre of objects.
Kingstone said it’s likely that when we look at someone, we centre on their face and "just sort of get the eyes for free."
But Levy -- who was 12 at the time -- suggested a unique strategy to test the hypothesis: use monsters.
Specifically, Levy suggested his father use the other-worldly characters from popular role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons."
Characters in the fantasy game often have eyes located in places other than their face -- for instance on their tail or arms.
"At the time I was really obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons, so I thought: 'wait, my monsters that I have in Dungeons and Dragons, don’t they have really weird eyes? Could we use those?' And that was how the idea started," the now-14-year-old Levy explained to CTVNews.ca.
By tracking subjects’ eye-travel while looking at such images, Levy theorized it might be possible to determine whether humans are hard-wired to stare at the centre of another person's face, or directly into their eyes.
That conversation inspired Kingstone to launch a study -- aptly named "Monsters are People Too" -- in his UBC lab. The study is published in the current edition of the journal Biology Letters.
Kingstone even convinced his son's teachers to give him some time off school in order to help run the study -- of which he is listed as a lead author.
To test the theory, Kingstone and Levy, along with post-doctoral student Tom Foulsham, organized a test where participants were situated in front of a computer while a high-speed, high-resolution camera tracked their eye movement.
They were then shown images of humans, humanoids (monsters with mostly human shape), and Dungeons-inspired monsters, with eyes positioned somewhere on their body other than their face.
Participants were instructed to first look at a corner of the screen ahead of the image’s appearance, and the camera would track eye patterns as it travelled to the image.
"There was a profound and significant bias toward looking early and often at the eyes of humans and humanoids and also, critically, at the eyes of monsters," the authors state. "These findings demonstrate that the eyes, and not the middle of the head, are being targeted by the oculomotor system."
When the participants looked at pictures of humans and humanoids, they had a tendency to centre on the image, and then shift their gaze directly up to the eyes. But when they were shown monsters, they tended to centre on the creature then shift their gaze to wherever the eyes were located -- for example on the creature's hands.
"These data indicate that where people looked was different for humans and humanoids versus monsters, but what they looked at -- the eyes -- was the same. This was confirmed statistically."
For his part, young Levy was instrumental in conducting the study: in addition to finding and selecting the images that were used, he also learned how to use the equipment and the software, and actually ran the 22 subjects through the test. After Levy had conducted his work, Kingstone and Foulsham stepped in and ran a data analysis of the information collected.
"Primarily, we put it into a voice that a journal would like and sent it off," Kingstone said.
The father and son admit had different expectations going into the study.
Levy said he expected that the results would show that humans were predisposed to seek out another creature’s eyes, rather than simply the centre of their head, as they would when looking at an eyeless object.
"I definitely thought they would have a bias to eyes because if you think about how people interact with each other, eyes are a really important thing for social interaction," he said. "So it would seem very logical that people would look at eyes, so it wasn’t surprising to me."
Kingstone wasn’t so sure.
As a working scientist, he knows it is rare that a single study results in a definitive finding, and had a feeling the subjects would not be immediately attracted to the monsters’ eyes.
"I actually thought what was going to happen is they would eventually look at the eyes, but really, they would spend time just kind of looking at these monsters all over the place (without) really targeting the eyes," he said. "I was really surprised by how fast they went to the eye and how frequently they did it. They kind of look as frequently as they do with humans -- and with humans, we know where the eyes are."
But in hindsight, Kingstone said the findings make a lot of sense.
Humans use the eyes as a window into another person’s thoughts and feelings, he said, detecting information about their emotions, health, age, and even their gender.
"I can often tell what you’re interested in by where your eyes are directed, what you’re thinking. And what’s neat about eyes is it’s a two-way street. When I look at you and you look at me, I’m telling you what I’m interested in and you’re reading what I’m interested in. So if we share a gaze for a moment, we’re actually saying were interested in each other," he said.
"When people make eye contact it’s powerful."
The researchers say the findings could be useful in helping understand which regions of the brain process the social information we gather from our peers. More specifically, it could also help scientists understand why children with deficits, such as autism, often avoid eye contact with others.