A new research from Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, United States. suggested that the rise and fall of shared attention during interpersonal conversations are characterized by making eye contact and then breaking it. These findings were published by the United States Academy of Sciences.
This study shows that when two people talk, their pupils periodically synchronize. This process seems to peak during moments of shared attention. But it can be difficult to think of something original to say when you are looking deeply into someone’s eyes. The new ideas and individual contributions that keep each person engaged during a conversation don’t necessarily happen when the eyes of two people are connected.
Making eye contact facilitates shared attention and connection. “Conversation is the platform where minds meet to create and exchange ideas, refine rules, and forge bonds,” the authors noted.
For this study, they asked: “How do minds coordinate with each other to build a shared narrative from independent contributions?” Their findings suggest that “eye contact may be a key mechanism to enable the coordination of shared and independent modes of thought, allowing the conversation to be coherent and evolve.”
“Eye contact is really immersive and powerful,” explained lead author Sophie Wohltjen, a specialist in brain and psychological sciences at Dartmouth. When two people have a conversation, eye contact indicates that shared attention is high, that they are in maximum synchrony with each other. As eye contact persists, that synchrony decreases.
“We think this is also good because too much synchronization can make a conversation stale, ” said Wohltjen. An interesting conversation sometimes requires being on the same page and sometimes saying something new. Eye contact seems to be one of the ways we create a shared space while allowing space for new ideas.”
Breaking eye contact facilitates independent modes of thought and fresh ideas. “In the past, eye contact was supposed to create synchrony, but our findings suggest it’s not that simple,” said another of the authors, Thalia Wheatley, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth and principal investigator in its Systems Laboratory. Social. We make eye contact when we are already in sync and, in any case, eye contact seems to help to break that synchrony momentarily to allow a new thought or idea”.
Look at each other and not see each other
For this study, Wohltjen and Wheatley had pairs of college students enter the lab and hold a 10-minute conversation while wearing eye-tracking glasses and sitting face to face facing each other. They were free to discuss anything that came to mind during this natural conversation.
After their one-on-one dialogue ended, each participant watched a video of the interaction and made real-time comments on how engaged they felt at various points in the process. The researchers then measured how pupillary synchronicity and moments of eye contact correlated with shared attention and engagement during different phases of the conversation.
According to the authors, their results showed that people make eye contact when pupillary synchrony is at its peak. It diminishes immediately and only recovers once eye contact is broken. The data also showed a correlation between instances of eye contact and higher levels of engagement during the conversation. Building and breaking eye contact, then, keep conversations fresh and engaging.
The latest research suggests that eye contact is marked when shared attention is high. These findings also indicate that once eye contact begins and pupillary synchrony peaks, it is difficult for each talker to generate new ideas or thoughts until eye contact is broken. “Additionally, we speculate that eye contact may play a corrective role in disrupting shared attention by reducing synchrony as necessary to facilitate independent contributions to the conversation,” Wohltjen noted.
“Conversation is a creative act in which people build a shared story from independent voices,” concluded Wheatley. The moments of eye contact seem to indicate that we have achieved a shared understanding and we need to contribute our independent voice.”