Why It’s Sometimes Hard To Keep Eye Contact While Having A Conversation
We all know that maintaining eye contact with someone can get us a long way in life. But for many people, this is easier said than done. In most cases, and despite our best efforts, we oftentimes find ourselves looking away when engaged in a discussion, especially if that discussion is not with friends or family, but with others.
There is a new research that has recently come out, revealing that there is some good scientific reason for why this keeps happening. As it turns out, not keeping eye contact during a conversation has nothing to do with our own level of awkwardness, but it is, in fact, our brain’s inability of thinking of the right words, while at the same time focusing on someone’s face.
This trend becomes more pronounced as people engage in discussions that require less familiar words that require some of the mental resources used by the brain to maintain eye contact. Scientists from Kyoto University in Japan have put this to the test by working with 26 volunteers where they would play word association games while staring at various faces generated by a computer.
When making and maintaining eye contact, the participants found it increasingly harder to come up with links between various words.
“Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during a conversation,” write the researchers. “This suggests that there is interference between these processes.”
The volunteers were tested while looking at animations of faces making eye contact, as well as faces that were looking away. They were also tasked to think of links between easily associated words, as well as words that had many competing associations. The word knife, for instance, is a relatively easy one because one can either use it to cut or stab. But the word folder is harder in this case since there are many more things that can be associated with it – you can open, close, fill, store, or classify them for instance.
The volunteers had a harder time keeping eye contact when tougher words were being used. The same thing didn’t apply to weaker words. This has lead researchers to deduce that the brain is handling too many tasks at once.
This discovery, doesn’t mean that doing both activities, keeping eye contact and talking, isn’t possible, but it does indicate that both activities require the same part of the brain, and things can become too overbearing at times.
It is also important to note that the number of volunteers used in this study is too small so as to draw a definite conclusion. But the findings here are, nevertheless, intriguing. In a somewhat linked experiment carried out last year by Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo, demonstrated that staring into someone’s eyes for 10 minutes is enough to induce an altered state of consciousness. The participants involved in this experiment mentioned that they experienced hallucinations of monsters, their relatives, and even themselves.
This process of the brain is what’s known as neural adaptation. This happens when the brain gradually alters their response to a stimulus that doesn’t change over time – in this case being the fact that people were looking into someone else’s eyes for 10 minutes. It is similar to when you put your hand on the table and keep it there. You initially feel the touch, but after a while, the feeling of contact between your hand and the table lessens and disappears altogether. The same thing applies to the taste of chewing gum, or a room with a weird smell. After a while, we can no longer taste or smell them.
This eye-contact study here could represent the same phenomenon of neural adaptation, but further research is needed in the matter. Nevertheless, when you encounter someone who’s not maintaining eye contact with you, remember that maybe they’re not necessarily awkward, but that their brains may be overloaded.