If you’ve ever felt acutely self conscious upon making eye contact with another person, a new study may help you understand why. Matias Baltazar and his colleagues have found that making eye contact activates people’s awareness of their own bodies. That feeling of self consciousness induced by mutual gaze might be based in part on the fact that your brain is suddenly more attuned to your body.
The researchers presented 32 participants with a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen, and after each they asked them to rate the intensity of their emotional reaction. Crucially, each image was preceded either by a fixation cross or a photograph of a man or woman’s face. These faces were either looking right at the participants, as if making eye contact, or they had their gaze averted. The participants’ were also wired up to a skin conductance machine that measured the sweatiness of their fingers. This provided an objective measure of the participants’ emotional reactions to the images, to be compared against their subjective assessments of their reactions.
The participants’ accuracy at judging their own physiological reactions was more accurate for those images that followed a photograph that appeared to be making eye contact. “Our results support the view that human adults’ bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another’s gaze,” the researchers said.
A problem with this methodology is that greater bodily arousal is known to enhance performance in psychological tests, so perhaps eye contact was simply exerting its effects this way. But the researchers checked, and the boost to self awareness of eye contact wasn’t merely a side-effect of increased arousal – the participants’ physiological reactivity (an indicator of arousal) was no greater after eye contact photos than after gaze averted photos. The performance-enhancing effect of eye contact was also specific to bodily awareness. The researchers checked this by confronting participants with occasional memory tests through the experiment, for words that had appeared on-screen. Participant performance was no better after looking at faces that made eye contact, compared with the averted gaze faces.
Baltazar and his team said the fact that eye contact enhances our awareness of our own bodies could have therapeutic implications. For example, they said it could “stimulate interoceptive awareness in people whose condition is associated with interoceptive hyposensitivity, [such as] anorexia nervosa and major depression disorder.”
Baltazar M, Hazem N, Vilarem E, Beaucousin V, Picq JL, & Conty L (2014). Eye contact elicits bodily self-awareness in human adults. Cognition, 133 (1), 120-7 PMID: 25014360