People look away during conversations to stop their brain overloading, new research suggests.
So, breaking eye contact allows us to express ourselves more clearly — perhaps indicating a better conversationalist.
The finding helps balance out the common advice from ‘experts’ to maintain eye contact.
Keeping eye contact is supposed to help build an emotional connection with others.
Broadly speaking, this is true.
But eye contact during a conversation is a dynamic process.
Most people don’t naturally stare unblinking into the other person’s eyes while talking (I say most people, but there are a few!).
By the same token, most people don’t totally avoid eye contact while talking.
Eye contact is usually a kind of dance, where the person speaking tends to look away more than the person listening.
(Again this isn’t always true: some people appear to be unaware that it is rude to let their eyes roam the room while you are talking to them!)
Eye contact is stimulating
In this study people were asked to play a word-association game.
The results showed that looking away helped people find the right word more quickly.
When forced to maintain eye contact while search for a difficult word, it took them longer.
The explanation is that staring into someone’s eyes is mentally stimulating.
So, the brain automatically forces you to look away to conserve cognitive resources.
This only happens, though, when we are searching for difficult words.
When the words are easy, it’s relatively easy for us to maintain eye contact.
The study’s authors conclude:
“…eye contact interferes with domain-general cognitive control processes during verb generation.
This result indicates that the efficiency of cognitive control in conversation is, to some extent, influenced specifically by eye contact.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Cognition (Kajimura et al., 2016).