Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been debating with peers for many years what exactly comprise the gaze mechanisms. Do humans first look for the eyes or face when surveying another person or animal? Many scientists believed this is a question impossible to answer since the two are indistinguishable. Capitalizing on his 12-year old son’s brilliant idea of using monsters from Dungeons and Dragons as test canvas for his experiment, Kingstone proved that we’re indeed hot-wired to look for eyes, not faces, whether they’re thousands of them or positioned in unusual places like the hands of a monster. The findings could provide clues as to why some individuals, particularly those inflicted by autism, have a though time making eye contact.
In a past study of his from 1998, Kingstone showed that humans will typically look into the direction that other people are watching, in an automatic fashion. If you happen to see a small group of people or a huge crowd, all the same, looking in a particular direction, will find yourself directing your gaze towards that direction as well. This isn’t a behavior limited to humans either, since many animals have been found to share it. Sure, it’s a signal of interest, but what hints the direction: is it the people’s faces or their eyes? For humans, indeed, the two are one and the same direction-wise. However, humans use different parts of their brains to recognize eyes (superior temporal sulcus) and faces (fusiform face area), separately.
The scientist confessed his dilemma to his son, Julian Levy, over the dinner table once, and the latter quickly jumped to his aid. He believed discriminating between the ideas would be a lot easier if his father used the Monster Manual, a compendium of illustrated fabled characters from the world of Dungeons and Dragons. There a myriad of characters can be found, from humanoid, to complete abominations, some so twisted, like monsters with eyes in their hands or tentacles, that it instantly seemed to Kingstone as a perfect starting point.
We subconsciously look for eyes
Soon after, he enlisted 22 volunteers and instructed them to look at the corner of a computer screen before images of the monsters appeared. The volunteers were equipped with an eye tracking system to follow rapid eye movements as they browsed through the photos. Their findings showed that indifferent whether the graphic depicted a humanoid being or an utter monster, the viewers gazed first hit the center of the image. For humans and humanoids, their eyes then drifted vertically. Monsters, meanwhile, prompted sporadic eye movements. Still, in all cases people looking at the photos first searched for the eyes and, once they found them (on a head, hands, torsos, or otherwise), their gaze locked onto the eyes before moving to other body parts.
“If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” Kingstone says.
Like stated earlier, different brain parts are responsible for recognizing eyes, and faces, respectively.
“Our conclusion that human gaze selection is mediated by a specialized brain mechanism, sensitive to the eyes rather than only the head, sheds light on individuals with autism who often fail to select the eyes of others,” the authors wrote. “[E]fforts to train individuals with autism to look at others in a typical manner should focus on the selection of the eyes of others rather than targeting the head alone.”
The findings were published in the journal Biology Letters, where Levy was also cited as an author - and rightfully so, since he not only hinted towards the key idea that made this study possible, but also trained himself to use the eye-tracker, ran the experiment, and coded all the data.