It happens to everyone at some point. Whether you’re sitting in a classroom, office, bus terminal, or fancy restaurant. You’re going about your business and decide to take a quick look around. Immediately, you notice a stranger who happens to be gazing in your direction. As soon as your eyes meet the stranger’s, that person quickly looks away in another direction.
When that happens, do you shift your gaze toward the new direction the stranger is staring at? No, because your brain instinctively knows that the person is only looking in that direction because they were caught staring.
At the moment, this phenomenon may not strike you like all that unusual or special. However, according to a new study just conducted by researchers at Yale University and Harvard University, this remarkable ability shows just how much insight the brain can gain from just looking at another person’s eyes.
“The brain is a lot smarter than we thought,” says senior study author Brian Scholl, professor of psychology at Yale, in a release. “The brain is reading people’s minds, not just where they are looking.”
People often believe they can “read” another person by looking into their eyes, but scientific research to back up that belief has always been lacking. Researchers all over the world have long found it difficult to quantify just how much the brain can learn about a situation from other people’s eye movements.
Now, it’s important to note that in the vast majority of cases, our eyes naturally tend to follow the gaze of others. If we see one person, or a group of people for that matter, staring in a certain direction it’s natural to glance that way as well. That’s why the brain’s reaction to the “caught staring” scenario is of such great importance to the study’s authors. Somehow, our minds simply know that there’s nothing important or worth looking at in the direction a person darts their eyes after they’ve been caught staring.
“Eye and head movements after you’re ‘caught’ during gaze deflection do not automatically orient others’ attention — presumably because the brain can tell that such looks aren’t directed toward anything in particular, but rather are just directed away from the person who was caught staring,” professor Scholl explains. “This shows how the brain is specialized not to perceive others’ eyes, but rather to perceive the mind behind the eyes.”
In collaboration with researchers from Harvard, Scholl and his team conducted a series of experiments that showed the brain has a way of instantly determining if another’s gaze is “socially significant” enough to warrant taking a look.
On a conscious level, it may seem obvious that another person quickly changed their gaze to avoid awkwardness. Sure, within one or two seconds, you know that the person only looked away because they were embarrassed. But, this study is referring to split-second unconscious visual reflexes. These findings emphasize just how responsive and adaptable the human brain is in different situations.
“This serves as a case study of both how social dynamics can shape visual attention in a sophisticated manner and how vision science can contribute to our understanding of common social phenomena,” the study concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.