A new study suggests that we may struggle to maintain eye contact while having a conversation with someone because out brains just can't handle doing both at the same time.
It's not (just) shyness, it seems. Scientists from Kyoto University, Japan tested 26 volunteers on their ability to play word association games while keeping eye contact with computer-generated faces. Their results suggest that people just can't handle thinking of the right words while keeping their attention on an interlocutor's face. The effect, they found, becomes more noticeable when the participants had to think up less familiar words -- implying that this process uses the same mental resources as maintaining eye contact.
"Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation," write the researchers.
"This suggests that there is interference between these processes."
The participants were asked to think of word associations for terms with various difficulty levels. Thinking of a verb for 'spoon', for example, is pretty easy -- you can eat with it. Thinking of a verb associated with the word 'paper' is harder since you can write, fold, cut it, and so on. Participants were tested on their ability to associate while looking at animations of faces maintaining eye contact and animations of faces looking away. And in the first case, they fared worse.
It took them longer to think of answers when maintaining eye contact, but only when they had to associate a more difficult word. The researchers believe that this happens because the brain uses the same resources for both actions -- so in a way, talking while maintaining eye contact overloads it.
The team suspects that participants may be experiencing some kind of neural adaptation, a process in which the brain alters its response to a constant stimulus -- take for example the way you don't feel your wallet in the back-pocket you usually put it in but becomes uncomfortable in the other one. The sample size this team worked with is pretty small, so further research is needed to prove or disprove the findings.
The paper "When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation" has been published in the journal Cognition.