Scientist Break Down The Biology Of Gazes
November 27, 2012

Look Just Below The Eyes To Get The Best Look At Someone’s Face

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) recently discovered that the best way to look at a person´s face is below their eyes, providing an explanation that is also linked to cultural background and other similar factors.

"It's pretty fast, it's effortless —— we're not really aware of what we're doing," explained Miguel Eckstein, a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at UCSB, in a prepared statement.

The researchers utilized an eye tracker along with over 100 photos of faces and participants. They tracked the gaze of the study participants to figure out where the individuals would look at the first moment in terms of identifying emotional state, gender, and identity. As a result of training at a young age, they believe that individuals look at somewhere below the eyes as a sign of respect. The point of reference as below the eyes could also be because an individual is trying to figure out where the other person´s attention is gathered.

"For the majority of people, the first place we look at is somewhere in the middle, just below the eyes," noted Eckstein in the statement.

Based on the findings, the team of investigators believes that a glance to the point below the eyes allows the brain to use “sophisticated computations” to arrange eye movements that are both accurate but also helpful in determining fight, flight, or even love. That location is thought to be the place that relates to the highest resolution in the eye, but also the regions around the area in the retina behind the eye (the foveal area) that have access to fewer spatial details. The glance is brief, only about 250 milliseconds, and the person´s usually not aware that this is all happening.

"When you look at a scene, or at a person's face, you're not just using information right in front of you," remarked UCSB researcher Matt Peterson in the statement.

During this glance, the individuals are also taking in information regarding the person´s facial features like the eyes, nose and mouth. The researchers tracked the information with a sophisticated algorithm that allowed them to find out where was the best place to look for spatial details. However, when the individual is faced with the need to determine a person´s emotion, gender, or identity by looking elsewhere, they weren´t as successful as when they looked at the point just below the eyes.

"What the visual system is adept at doing is taking all those pieces of information from your face and combining them in a statistical manner to make a judgment about whatever task you're doing," commented Eckstein in the statement.

Even with the results, the researchers state that this type of behavior is not consistent for everyone. For example, past research has shown how those of East Asian heritage have tended to look at a lower point on a person´s face when working to identify an individual´s facial features. The scientists also believe that, in the future, the algorithms developed along with these studies on facial features could provide valuable information on medical conditions related to atypical patterns of gazing, such as autism or schizophrenia.

The study´s results were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image 2 (below): Left: This side shows predictions of a model which looks at the most informative features in the display for a person identification task (darker red areas at the center of the eyes are the predicted looking location); Right: This side shows predictions of an optimal gaze model that takes into account the varying spatial detail of human visual processing across the visual field (darker red areas are the predicted looking location). Green circles are where, on average, each of the participants first looked at when identifying the face. White circle corresponds to the average across all participants. Credit: UCSB