A team of researchers from France and Finland teamed up to study the effects of direct eye contact on a person's perception of themselves and others. Interestingly, these researchers discovered that direct eye contact with another human heightens a subject's powers of introspection and self-awareness. Not only does a direct glare from another person increase our attention to our immediate external surroundings, it also strengthens our memory, heightens our sense of self-consciousness, and makes us more likely to intervene in a pro-social manner.
The importance of self-reflection shows how our brains immediately interpret our surroundings from an egocentric perspective. After seeing the direct gaze of another, an observee's mind immediately turns inwards. It seems the only way in which we can process this information from the outside world is through using the concept of a self to organize all of the phenomena that surrounds us. The researchers called our reflexive self the "associative glue" that helps us make sense of the gaze and our relationship to it.
Even when subjects were shown a picture or a poster of a person staring right at them, researchers found that subjects became more open and honest in their conversations and in questionnaires. Some researchers hypothesize that this is so because when we are looked at directly we immediately perceive ourselves to be the object of another subject's world. Whenever we perceive ourselves to be an object in another's world, we immediately wish to prove our self-worth not only to them, but also to ourselves.
This research will hopefully not only be interesting for psychology students. Researchers want this study to have practical applications for psychotherapists in the near future. Since this test showed that people tend to be more open, altruistic, and pro-social when subjected to a direct gaze, the researchers of this study hope that their work will lead to further testing and the eventual incorporation of gazing into professional psychological counseling. More tests need to be done, of course, but the findings in this study bode well for future psychological tests on the efficacy of incorporating gazes into talk therapy sessions. This therapy could potentially help people suffering from various mental health conditions.
This study was funded by the Advanced Grant From the European Research Council and from the French National Research Agency. For those who are interested in looking into this issue further, the study was published in the medical journal Consciousness and Cognition under the title "Watching Eyes Effects: When Others Meet the Self."