National Post (National Edition)


Instinct to read emotion transcends attempts to conceal the face


The COVID-19 pandemic has turned public life in wintertime Canada into a landscape of eyes: With winter clothing and face masks covering virtually every square centimetre of skin, we have been left to screen for danger, detect friendline­ss and find love solely by looking into each other's eyes. Incredibly, it seems to be working. Not only are we humans eerily good at extracting informatio­n from the two squishy orbs in each other's face, but it's one of our easiest traits to exploit.

As soon as social scientists began experiment­ing with eye-tracking cameras starting in the 1970s, they discovered that humans fixated on eyes to the exclusion of all other features of the face. Ever since, science has only confirmed the long-held belief that even the briefest gaze can be used to detect guilt, fear or even the authentici­ty of a smile.

A 2019 study saw computer engineers analyze thousands of photos of genuine versus posed smiles, concluding that the genuine smiles were the ones that saw the most eye movement.

The human ability to read emotions through eyes is a power that transcends even the most deliberate attempts to conceal the face. Even when a woman is wearing a burka — an Islamic head covering that shields the eyes by nearly 80 per cent — participan­ts in a Dutch study were able to correctly diagnose the woman's emotional state after seeing a picture of her for only onetenth of a second.

Humans can also identify a criminal solely from his eyes. A 2018 study out of Iowa State University flashed participan­ts an image of a man in a balaclava and then asked them to point him out in a police lineup. Unexpected­ly, researcher­s discovered that the criminal was more likely to be correctly identified if participan­ts were shown only the eyes of potential suspects.

Humans are so hardwired to read each other's eyes, in fact, that the mere sight of a fellow human's eye can send our brains into overdrive. Studies that have analyzed the brains of test subjects using an MRI machine found that their brains lit up with activity upon being shown images of eyes. In 2017, a team of Chinese researcher­s used eye-tracking to show that feelings of guilt will indeed cause people to avoid the gaze of others. Their theory was that refusing to see human eyes was to avoid this lighting-up of the brain in order to avoid triggering an avalanche of remorseful thoughts.

By relying so heavily on the gaze of fellow humans to navigate our world, however, it's no surprise the easiest way to trick or manipulate a human is with eye contact.

In the annals of history's greatest con artists, Grigori Rasputin is easily in the top five. A filthy, foul-smelling serial harasser, Rasputin neverthele­ss charmed his way into one of the most powerful positions in history: A trusted adviser to Czar Nicholas II, the emperor of 160 million people. And no descriptio­n of Rasputin ever fails to mention his eyes. In the words of the French diplomat Maurice Paléologue, “his gaze was at once piercing and caressing, naïve and cunning, far-off and intent.”

Celebrity social media posts are more likely to generate engagement if they feature direct eye contact with the viewer. Even a robot can gain our trust if it's careful enough to make eye contact. In a study published just last month, Finnish researcher­s sat study participan­ts in front of humanoid robots that were either looking away or staring them right in the face. For those caught in the robot's gaze, researcher­s found that everything from their heartbeat to the clamminess of their skin changed instantly to that of a more relaxed and engaged person.

In fact, if you ever feel the need to short-circuit someone's brain, the easiest way to do it is by staring into their eyes. A bizarre 2015 study out of Italy took 20 people and had them stare into each other's eyes for 10 minutes. Almost all of the participan­ts reported experienci­ng hallucinat­ions from the experience, such as seeing their partner's face contort into a monster or animal. The theory is that the brain becomes so overwhelme­d by a sustained battery of eye contact that it begins to neglect other functions.

Perhaps nobody knows the brain-melding power of human eye contact better than our closest friends in the animal kingdom: dogs. The next time you're in the company of some canines, take a good look at their eyes: Almost all domestic dogs have a muscle able to lift the inner eyebrow, forming an expression most humans would interpret as being pitiable. This is not an accident. When the wolf ancestors of today's modern dogs first approached a Neolithic campsite roughly 33,000 years ago, they had the same sharp, piercing eyes as contempora­ry wolves.

But millennia of relying on homo sapiens for their meals gradually favoured dogs with the eyebrow muscle: Cute dogs became pampered companions, while the steely eyed ones were much more likely to be left to fend for themselves. Even dingos haven't forgotten how quickly gaze can entrance a human. The animals first landed in Australia as the domestic companions of the continent's Indigenous peoples before returning to the wild. Even after thousands of years on their own, dingos are still more likely to make eye contact with a human than would a wolf, Australian researcher­s found in 2017.

It's for this reason that canine researcher­s have begun to shift their perception­s of how dogs and humans first came to be friends. Rather than humans taming the dog, the dog may simply have been among the first to figure out how to tame humans via their largest weakness.

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