A pair of researchers with Kyoto University has found a possible explanation for why people sometimes have trouble maintaining eye contact when talking with someone face-to-face. In their paper published in the journal Cognition, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura describe experiments they carried out with volunteers to learn more about how the phenomenon works and then discuss their findings.
Most everyone knows that maintaining eye contact with another person while speaking can sometimes be difficult—at times, the urge to look away becomes overwhelming. In some instances, it is clear that such breaks just seem natural to keep things from becoming awkward, or it signals that someone has grown bored with the conversation—but at other times, the researchers suggest, it is because we are trying to keep our brains from overloading.
To better understand what is going on in the brain during conversation, the researchers enlisted the assistance of 26 volunteers who were asked to participate in a common word-association game in which a person was shown a word (a noun) and was then asked to offer an immediate response (a verb), e.g. when given the word "ball," a reply might be the word "throw." In the lab, the volunteers interacted with a face on a computer (that sometimes looked away) as they played the game with different types of words that the researchers had preselected—some were easy while others were more difficult—coming up with a verb for "sky," for example, can be difficult for some because of the lack of choices, while coming up with a response to a word like "leaf" may be difficult because it has so many options to choose from.
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