Similar research has found that meeting the direct gaze of another also interferes with our working memory our ability to hold and use information in mind over short periods of time , our imagination , and our mental control , in the sense of our ability to suppress irrelevant information. You may have experienced these effects first hand, perhaps without realising, whenever you have broken eye contact with another person so as to better concentrate on what you are saying or thinking about.
Some psychologists even recommend looking away as a strategy to help young children answer questions.
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Too much eye contact can also make us uncomfortable and people who stare without letting go can come across as creepy. As well as sending our brains into social overdrive, research also shows that eye contact shapes our perception of the other person who meets our gaze.
For instance, we generally perceive people who make more eye contact to be more intelligent, more conscientious and sincere in Western cultures, at least , and we become more inclined to believe what they say. Of course, too much eye contact can also make us uncomfortable — and people who stare without letting go can come across as creepy.
In one study conducted at a science museum, psychologists recently tried to establish the preferred length of eye contact. They concluded that, on average, it is three seconds long and no one preferred gazes that lasted longer than nine seconds. View image of Man staring in out-of-focus crowd Credit: Getty Images. Another documented effect of mutual gaze may help explain why that moment of eye contact across a room can sometimes feel so compelling.
Perhaps, in the right context, when everyone else is busy talking to other people, this effect adds to the sense that you and the person looking back at you are sharing a special moment. This has been interpreted as a form of subconscious social mimicry, a kind of ocular dance, and that would be the more romantic take. When you look another person deep in the eye, do not think it is just their pupils sending you a message. That is not to say that pupil dilation has no psychological meaning. In fact, going back at least to the s, psychologists have studied the way that our pupils dilate when we are more aroused or stimulated in a physiological sense , whether by intellectual, emotional, aesthetic or sexual interest.
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This has led to debate about whether faces with more dilated pupils sometimes taken as a sign of sexual interest are perceived by onlookers to be more attractive. View image of Man staring at portrait Credit: Getty Images. Either way, centuries prior to this research, folk wisdom certainly considered dilated pupils to be attractive. But when you look another person deep in the eye, do not think it is just their pupils sending you a message. Yet another important eye feature are limbal rings: the dark circles that surround your irises. Recent evidence suggests that these limbal rings are more often visible in younger, healthier people, and that onlookers know this on some level, such that heterosexual women looking for a short-term fling judge men with more visible limbal rings to be more healthy and desirable.
View image of Gorilla staring at camera Credit: Getty Images.
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Interestingly, when the participants were explicitly asked about eyeball extramission, only 5 percent of them fessed up to believing in some sort of force being exerted by the eyes. But deep down, it looks like many of us put stock in the awesome power of the stare down. Karen Hopkin is a freelance science writer in Somerville, Mass. She holds a doctorate in biochemistry and is a contributor to Scientific American 's Second Science podcasts.
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This article is adapted from one of her recent podcasts. You have free article s left. Already a subscriber? Sign in. See Subscription Options. Full Transcript. More Podcasts.