Gaze Perception Makes Your Brain Think You Are Being Stared At
April 9, 2013

Gaze Perception Makes Your Brain Think You Are Being Stared At

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Like the old saying, “I´m not paranoid. They really are out to get me,” vision scientists have determined individuals will likely think people are staring at them even when they aren´t. While this fact has been determined, the theories behind why it is so are varied and interesting.

The study, entitled “Humans have an expectation that gaze is directed toward them” is authored by Isabelle Mareschal, Andrew J. Calder and Colin W.G. Clifford and was recently published in the journal Current Biology.

“Gaze perception — the ability to tell what a person is looking at — is a social cue that people often take for granted,” says Professor Clifford of The Vision Centre and The University of Sydney. “Judging if others are looking at us may come naturally, but it´s actually not that simple — our brains have to do a lot of work behind the scenes.”

Clifford explains the visual cues one uses to determine if someone is staring at them. Among these cues are the position of the other person´s eyes and the direction their head is turned in. Once the visual cues are registered the signals are sent to the brain and the specific regions within it that compute this information.

The brain is not merely a signal processor in this interaction, however. As Clifford explains, when a person is presented with more limited visual cues, such as in a darkened room or when the person “staring” is wearing sunglasses, the brain actively takes over plugging in the information that it “knows”.

For the research, the team from the Vision Centre created images of faces and asked study participants to observe where the faces were looking.

“We made it difficult for the observers to see where the eyes were pointed so they would have to rely on their prior knowledge to judge the faces´ direction of gaze,” Clifford explains. “It turns out that we´re hard-wired to believe that others are staring at us, especially when we´re uncertain."

“So gaze perception doesn´t only involve visual cues — our brains generate assumptions from our experiences and match them with what we see at a particular moment,”he adds.

The reasons behind this bias in humans involve several potentialities. “Direct gaze,” says Clifford, “can signal dominance or a threat, and if you perceive something as a threat, you would not want to miss it. So assuming that the other person is looking at you may simply be a safer strategy.”

Another opposing theory highlights the friendship rather than the foe angle. “Also, direct gaze is often a social cue that the other person wants to communicate with us, so it´s a signal for an upcoming interaction,” according to Clifford.

One example, that babies show a preference for a direct gaze, suggests this human bias may be innate. “It´s important that we find out whether it´s innate or learned — and how this might affect people with certain mental conditions,” claims Clifford.

“Research has shown, for example, that people who have autism are less able to tell whether someone is looking at them. People with social anxiety, on the other hand, have a higher tendency to think that they are under the stare of others.

“So if it is a learned behavior, we could help them practice this task — one possibility is letting them observe a lot of faces with different eyes and head directions, and giving them feedback on whether their observations are accurate,” Clifford concludes.

The Vision Centre study was funded by the Australian Research Council as the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science (ACEVS).