Do you struggle a lot making eye contact with people while having a conversation with them? And, do you feel bad about it? Then hold one. Here’s good news for you!
Findings from new research published in the journal Cognition revealed that there is a good scientific reason behind why some people feel uncomfortable making eye contact.
It is all in our brains!
There is nothing to feel embarrassed about!
Researchers say that our brains can’t balance the task of talking appropriately using the right words and focusing on eyes at the same time.
The amount of mental effort required to think of right words or less familiar words during an important discussion is the same as that needed when you have to sustain eye contact.
Do you forget words when you focus on the face? Or do you think longer about links between easily associated words?
Scientists from Kyoto University in Japan tested the problem of word association and eye contact in 26 volunteers. Participants engaged in word association games while staring at computer generated faces.
Surprisingly, participants found it hard to come up with links between words when making eye contact.
Even though looking into eyes and verbal communication are independent things, people frequently turn away their eyes when talking to the other person. Researchers suggest that there is an interference between making eye contact and verbal processing.
So, they tested the volunteers playing word association games for two different conditions:
- Looking at the animation of faces making eye contact.
- Looking at animations of faces looking away.
And the volunteers were instructed to think of:
- Links between easily associated words. For example – verb for knife (cut or stab), that is easy to think
- Words having a lot of competing associations. For example – associated words for folder
No doubt volunteers took more time to think of associated words when they were making eye contact with animated faces. But, they took longer time – when thinking of difficult word associations.
Overloaded cognitive system
Researchers suspected this could be because of brainstorming to recall the right word. As you brain is handling too much information, it prevents you from making eye contact. This is manifested as hesitation to maintain eye contact!
That doesn’t mean it is impossible to make eye contact with interlocutors and hold a conversation at the same time. Although possible, both activities draw on the same pool of cognitive resources. Sometimes that pool starts to run a little dry which makes you turn away your eyes from the person you are having a dialogue with.
Interesting research! Isn’t it?
So, don’t beat yourself up the next time you struggle to make eye contact with people trying to hold the conversation. Just remember, that your brain got slightly freaked out by eye contact.
Some people criticized the study for having a very small sample size but this is not the only study to reach this conclusion.
Another interesting study by Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo, found that staring into someone else’s eyes for just 10 minutes induced an altered state of consciousness.
Volunteers saw hallucinations of their relatives, monsters, and even their own faces. Researchers explained that this happened due to neural adaptation – a process where our brains alter their response to a stimulus that doesn’t change.
It is the same as touching an object. You may feel different for the first few minutes and then the feeling lessens as you continue to keep your hand there.
It can be interpreted that the volunteers who were trying to make eye contact and think of associated words (both hard and easy) experienced neural adaptation.
To come up with a convincing explanation for this phenomenon the Kyoto University researchers are planning for further study, to investigate the links between verbal and non-verbal communication.
I hope so the next time your colleague or neighbor looks away while they are talking to you, you won’t be offended. Don’t think it as rude but an overloaded cognitive system.
If you enjoyed reading about this interesting research, leave a comment below.