Your Brain Can Barely Handle Conversation and Eye Contact at the Same Time

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Eye contact is one of those things that’s easy to screw up and nearly impossible to do well. Too much comes off as creepy; on the other hand, so does too little. Which means that extended one-on-one conversations are often accompanied by silent, frantic mental calculations: Should I look away now? Is it too soon to do it again?

It’s a tough call. The line between shifty eyes and an overly intense stare is razor-thin — it takes around 3.3 seconds for eye contact to go from friendly to weird. And to make things even more complicated, research suggests that you’re a sharper version of yourself in the moments when you break the gaze: A study recently published in the journal Cognition and highlighted by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest found that eye contact effectively hijacks your brain, making it harder to focus on even simple things like speaking.

Study authors Shogo Kajimura and Michio Naumra, both from Japan’s University of Kyoto, recruited 26 people to complete a word-matching game, giving the verb that corresponded to a certain noun (for example, hearing “water” and saying “boil” or “splash”). At the same time, the participants were instructed to watch a realistic face on a screen in front of them; for some trials, the face was staring straight ahead, giving the appearance of eye contact, while in others it was looking off to the side.

The researchers mixed up the difficulty of the task from round to round, using some nouns that could easily be linked to verbs (which they called “low retrieval demand”) and some where it was more difficult to think of a connection (high retrieval). Some of the nouns were also most clearly associated with one verb in particular, while others could fit equally with any number of words (called low or high selection demand, respectively). “Milk,” for example, was low in both retrieval and selection demand, “because it’s strongly associated with ‘drink’ and much more so than any other verb,” as Jarrett noted. On the other end of the spectrum, “list” would be a case of both high retrieval and high selection demand — among other things, you could make a list, write a list, or check off a list, none of which emerged as an obvious association or a clear winner over the others.

When they analyzed their subjects’ performances in the word-matching task, the authors found that it took people longer to complete when they were making eye contact — but, notably, only when the word in question was high in both selection and retrieval demand. Here’s how Jarrett summed up their conclusion:

Kajimura and Nomura said this shows that eye contact doesn’t directly interfere with mental processes specifically related to verb generation – if it did, then performance times ought to have been longer for eye contact across easy and difficult versions of the verb task. Instead, they said the results are consistent with the idea that eye contact drains our more general cognitive resources — the kind that we need to draw on when some other task, such as speaking, becomes too difficult to be handled by domain-specific resources. That’s why the more complicated the story you’re telling (or excuse you’re making), the more likely you are to need to break off eye contact.

When in doubt, then, let this be the deciding vote in favor of looking away — you may seem a little shadier, but at least you’re not tripping over your words.