Why Do We Look For Eyes First
November 1, 2012

Child Helps Lead Study That Finds Humans Are Hard Wired To Gaze At Eyes

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A new study suggested and conducted by a 12-year-old scientist finds that humans are hard-wired to process monsters, humanoids and other fictional creatures the same way we process our fellow humans.

The research showed that people look for social, behaviorally pertinent information in the eyes of others -- even in creatures that may not look like any other known species.

The study was led by father and son team Alan Kingstone and his 14-year-old son Julian Levy, who was only 12 when he first came up with the idea for the work.

"This is a project that we would never have done in my lab if he hadn't suggested it to me," said Kingstone, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Colombia, in an interview with Discovery News.

Julian "suggested it over dinner one day while I was commenting that people believed that it might be impossible to discriminate whether people look at the eyes or just the center of the face.”

The question is neither straightforward nor trivial, and the answer could provide insight into which regions of the brain handle such processing. It also has implications for training kids with social deficits, and carries theoretical and computational implications, since many scientific models assume that the head, rather than the eyes, are being targeted, Kingstone said.

Brains are complex, and we do not yet know how humans´ gaze-recognition circuitry works, or what image draws our attention, he explained. Is it the eyes or their typical central location? Perhaps it is the complexities of the face itself, or something else.

But Kingstone had one major problem in his quest to find an answer: all humans have eyes in the center of their face, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine where a person´s gaze is actually focused.

Levy had the solution: monsters. Although some monsters are humanoid in shape, others have eyes on their hands, tails, limbs and other unnatural body parts, making them a perfect tool for the study.

In 1998, Kingstone demonstrated that humans automatically look to where others are looking. And other research has since confirmed this gaze-copying behavior among many other animals.

While it seems fairly straightforward why we do this, Kingstone wondered what it is we are actually doing.

There are two competing theories. The first is that humans are naturally drawn to people´s eyes, so we´ll automatically register where they´re looking. The other plausible explanation is that people are focused more broadly on faces, and the eyes just happen to be located in the middle region.

Kingstone explained the two hypotheses to Julian.

“A colleague had said that dissociating the two ideas – eyes vs. center of head – would be impossible because the eyes of humans are in the center of the head,” Kingstone said.

“I told Julian that when people say something is impossible, they sometimes tell you more about themselves than anything.”

That´s when Julian suggested using Monster Manual, a Bible of fictional creatures that accompanied the popular game Dungeons and Dragons. Regularly updated, the Manual contains great visuals with strangely detailed accounts of unnatural history. It also has different colored dragons, undead and beholders.

Levy knew the Manual contained many frightening monsters whose eyes are not on their faces. If people still looked at the eyes of these creatures, it would answer the question, Levy theorized.

Kingstone loved the idea, and persuaded Julian´s teacher to give him some time away from school to test it for himself.

Levy asked 22 volunteers to stare at the corner of a screen, and then press a key to bring up one of 36 monster images and let their eyes roam free. During this time, he tracked their eye movements with a special camera.

The recordings revealed that when study participants gazed at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with a shape similar to that of a human), their eyes moved to the center of the screen, and then straight up.

However, if the volunteers observed monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the center, and then off in various directions. In other words, the participants looked at eyes early and often, whether they were on the monsters´ faces or not.

“If people are just targeting the center of the head, like they target the center 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,” said Kingstone.

Indeed, that means that different parts of the brain are involved when humans gather social information from our peers. This might help explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with others, and about which parts of the brain are responsible.

Kingstone and postdoc Tom Foulsham authored a paper about the work, entitled: “Monsters are people too,” which was published in the current issue of the journal Biology Letters. But Levy did the rest of the work, including preparing the images, training himself to use the eye-tracker, running the study and coding all data. Accordingly, at the current age of 14, he is listed as the first author on the paper, which can be viewed here.