Staring straight into someone’s eyes can be pretty intense, and is usually avoided by most people. But a team of researchers has shown that it’s even more intense than you’d think: it actually alters your consciousness, and often causes hallucinations.

Image via Imgneed.

This particular study was conducted on only 20 volunteers, but the results were consistent across all participants. They weren’t told what the purpose of the study was, only knowing that it had to do with a “meditative experience with eyes open”. They were placed in pairs of 2 in a dimly lit room and asked to look at their partner’s eyes for 10 minutes straight. After that, they were asked to complete questionnaires related to what they experienced during and after the experiment.

Not only did the experiment bring on strange ‘out of body’ experiences for the volunteers, it also caused them to see hallucinations of monsters, their relatives, and themselves in their partner’s face. Quite a strange trip, for only looking into someone’s eyes.

“The participants in the eye-staring group said they’d had a compelling experience unlike anything they’d felt before,” Christian Jarrett writes for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. 

Scientists aren’t sure what it is, but something about starting into human eyes seems to bring out these strange reactions.

Jarrett explains:

“On the dissociative states test, they gave the strongest ratings to items related to reduced colour intensity, sounds seeming quieter or louder than expected, becoming spaced out, and time seeming to drag on. On the strange-face questionnaire, 90 percent of the eye-staring group agreed that they’d seen some deformed facial traits, 75 percent said they’d seen a monster, 50 percent said they saw aspects of their own face in their partner’s face, and 15 percent said they’d seen a relative’s face.”

The results are consistent with another, 2010 study, in which participants were asked to look at their reflection in a mirror for 10 minutes, focusing on the eyes. The paper, entitled Strange-Face-in-the-Mirror Illusion, reports that after less than a minute, the volunteers started seeing illusions and experiencing strange emotions.

“The participants’ descriptions included huge deformations of their own faces; seeing the faces of alive or deceased parents; archetypal faces such as an old woman, child or the portrait of an ancestor; animal faces such as a cat, pig or lion; and even fantastical and monstrous beings,” Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik write for Scientific American. “All 50 participants reported feelings of ‘otherness’ when confronted with a face that seemed suddenly unfamiliar. Some felt powerful emotions.”

Although in all fairness, it may have nothing to do with eyes at all. This phenomenon might be caused by neural adaptation – in other words, if you’re continuously looking at the same thing, your neurons become less and less stimulated, the perception starts to fade, and you start to see other things where other things simply aren’t.

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Like us on Facebook