A psychologist based in Italy says he has found a simple way to induce in healthy people an altered state of consciousness – simply get two individuals to look into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes while they are sitting in a dimly lit room. The sensations that ensue resemble mild “dissociation” – a rather vague psychological term for when people lose their normal connection with reality. It can include feeling like the world is unreal, memory loss, and odd perceptual experiences, such as seeing the world in black and white.
Giovanni Caputo recruited 20 young adults (15 women) to form pairs. Each pair sat in chairs opposite each other, one metre apart, in a large, dimly lit room. Specifically, the lighting level was 0.8 lx, which Caputo says “allowed detailed perception of the fine face traits but attenuated colour perception.” The participants’ task was simply to stare into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes, all the while maintaining a neutral facial expression. A control group of a further 20 participants also sat in a dimly lit room in pairs, but their chairs faced the wall and they stared at the wall. Beforehand both groups were told that the study was going to involve a “meditative experience with eyes open.”
When the 10 minutes were over the participants filled out three questionnaires: the first was an 18-item test of dissociative states; the other two asked questions about their experience of the other person’s face (or their own face if they were in the control group).
The participants in the eye-staring group said they’d had a compelling experience unlike anything they’d felt before. They also scored higher on all three questionnaires than the control group. On the dissociative states test, they gave the strongest ratings to items related to reduced colour intensity, sounds seeming quieter or louder than expected, becoming spaced out, and time seeming to drag on. On the strange-face questionnaire, 90 per cent of the eye-staring group agreed that they’d seen some deformed facial traits, 75 per cent said they’d seen a monster, 50 per cent said they saw aspects of their own face in their partner’s face, and 15 per cent said they’d seen a relative’s face.
Caputo thinks the facial hallucinations are a kind of rebound effect, as the participants in the eye-staring group returned to “reality” after dissociating. This is largely speculation and he admits that the study should be considered preliminary. I’d also highlight that while it’s true the eye-staring group scored higher than controls on dissociative states, they didn’t score any of the items on the scale higher than 2.45, on average, on a five-point scale (where 0 is “not at all” and 5 would be “extremely”).
Another methodological issue is that we don’t know what the crucial elements of the eye-staring exercise were for inducing the described effects (nor why they had these effects). We can infer that low lighting was not the only important element because the control group sat in the same dim room. However, they were free to shift their gaze around, unlike the eye-starers who had to maintain their gaze on their partner’s eyes.
Other clues come from prior research by Caputo and others. These studies found that simply staring at a dot on the wall for a prolonged duration can induce dissociative-like states, as can staring at one’s own face in the mirror (an exercise nicknamed the “strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion“). However, staring into another person’s eyes might be the most effective dissociation-inducing exercise yet. Comparing the questionnaire scores in the current study with those reported in his past research, Caputo says that what he calls “interpersonal gazing” has a more powerful dissociative effect than staring into a mirror.
Caputo, G. (2015). Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing Psychiatry Research, 228 (3), 659-663 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.050