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You lookin' at me? (The answer may surprise you)

April 12, 2013|By Melissa Healy
  • You lookin' at me??? Er, maybe not, says a new study.
You lookin' at me??? Er, maybe not, says a new study. (American Cinemateque )

Determining what someone else is looking at -- and whether he or she is looking at you -- is one of humankind's most distinctive feats of mental agility. Even a baby human can wrest more information about another person's intentions by looking at the direction of his gaze than an adult chimpanzee ever will. Our canine friends are better at it than wolves, but still no better at this skill than an infant.

So, when you're pretty sure someone is gazing at you -- not just in your direction, but directly at you -- you must be right. Right?

Wrong, says a new study, which suggests that in circumstances of high uncertainty -- at night, or when the other person is wearing sunglasses, for instance -- we favor the assumption that the person is looking directly at us, even when he is not.

In the latest study, published this week in the journal Current Biology, researchers used graphic computer programs to develop pictures of faces, and asked subjects to decide whether the generated face was looking at them or not. While some gazed straight-on at the subjects, the researchers introduced ambiguity into the picture by shifting the orientation of the face and eyes, and by blurring or shifting the pupils' position in the eyes by tiny degrees.

When the computer-generated images were not manipulated, the subjects were good judges of whether or not the looker was engaging directly with them. But when the gaze of the computer-generated looker had been manipulated to be ambiguous, the subjects overwhelmingly chose to believe they were being engaged directly.

It's a quirk of evolution, the researchers suggest: Given the possible threat that another poses, better to assume he's lookin' at you than to suppose he's just benignly looking in your direction, the researchers suggest.

"Assuming direct gaze is simply a safer strategy," the researcher wrote.

The study does not resolve a fundamental question about gaze perception in humans, however: whether it is a skill our brains are innately wired to develop, or whether it can be taught. That's especially important for improving the social skills of children with autism, or of adults with schizophrenia, who tend to have weaknesses in this crucial non-verbal form of communication.

It's a fascinating field of study. Learn what's been done here.

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