Afraid to look at each other when talking? You’re not alone

When talking, it may be difficult for you to look into each other's eyes, which is not a rare situation.

When talking, looking into the other person’s eyes can be particularly intimidating. So much so that the desire to look away for a moment becomes irrepressible.

Researchers have examined the reasons for this unease. And it would not only be psychological.

When talking, it may be difficult for you to look into each other's eyes, which is not a rare situation.
When talking, it may be difficult for you to look into each other’s eyes, which is not a rare situation.

How long are you able to hold the gaze of a stranger, or even a relative, before you feel uncomfortable? Between 2.6 and 4 seconds, suggests a study from University College London, England, published in the Royal Society Open Science in 2016. This does not mean that it is impossible to maintain your eyes any longer. However, beyond that, the brain identifies this “fixette” as a singularity and believes that something is wrong. [1]

So, why does looking at each other become an embarrassing thing?

Emotions are undeniably part of the equation. We know that shy people, for example, tend to avoid staring into their eyes. Out of modesty, out of fear of judgment. For fear of competition, too. Some exchanges can lead to a struggle, where the one who maintains the gaze is the dominant and the one who lowers his eyes is dominated. The phenomenon is observed in the animal world: many animals stare at each other as a sign of threat or interest.

But other experiments suggest that physiological reasons also explain why some of us have particular difficulty maintaining eye contact.

An overflow of information

In short: your brain needs to organize words, and staring into someone’s eyes just doesn’t help.

First, a study from Kyoto University (Japan) published in the journal Cognition in 2016, showed that our brain can not find the right words just by concentrating on a face at the same time. This phenomenon is all the more noticeable when we search for words that we do not use every day. To reach these conclusions, the scientists put 26 volunteers to the test. They had to do word associations, while looking at faces generated by a computer. Some of these facies made eye contact, others looked in another direction.

They were asked to think about combinations of words more or less complex. For example, thinking about “knife” is relatively simple, because apart from “cut” or “stab”, there are few verbs that come instantly in mind. “Dossier” is thus more convoluted, because it is possible to open it, close it, fill it … It finally turned out that the more the participants kept the connection with their eyes, the more they had trouble finding links between terms. But only when difficult associations were involved.

These hesitations would indicate that the brain manipulates too much information at once, suspects the researchers. “Although eye contact and verbal processing seem to be independent, they write, people often avoid the eyes of their interlocutors during the conversation. This suggests that there is interference between these processes. “Further research will be needed to confirm that these two tasks, maintaining eye contact and holding a conversation, involve the same mental resources.

The brain adapts

In short: your nerves and brain don’t want you to keep looking into someone else’s eyes.

This study is not the first to suggest that the brain is “scared” by eye contact. A study by the University of Urbino (Italy), published in the journal Psychiatry Research in 2015, showed that staring at someone else’s eyes for ten minutes in a poorly lit room altered participants’ state of consciousness. After the experiment, they suffered from hallucinations. They saw monsters, their loved ones, and even their own faces warped. Protests close to dissociative unrest.[2]

This process would be “neural adaptation.” Our brain would gradually change its response to an unchanging stimulus. In fact, it is the same as putting your hand on a table or attaching an object for an extended period of time. At first, the sensations are vivid and clear. But gradually, they are diminishing. Just move your fingers or blink to find them. If someone looks away during your discussion, they may only have an overloaded cognitive system.

Finally, in their study, researchers at University College London found that people who can hold a look for the longest time without feeling unwell are those whose pupils dilate the fastest. However, other research, published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013, suggests that making efforts to increase eye contact would be counterproductive. The popular belief is that a sustained look increases our persuasive power. The study shows the opposite: it would ultimately reduce the chances of convincing the interlocutor, especially because it would introduce… embarrassment. The loop is closed.

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