Should you gaze into the eyes of a Zombie?

 

The dungeon is pitch black — until the dungeon master blazes a torch, confirming your worst fears. A Beholder monster lurches at you, its eyeballs wriggling on tentacular stems.

As you prepare to wield your Vorpal sword, where do you focus your gaze: at the monster's head or at its tentacle eyes? Such a quandary from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons may seem like a meaningless trifle, but it holds within it the answer to a scientific question. In fact, a father-son team has used images of such monsters to show that most people will look to another creature's eyes, no matter where they are located on the body.

"Dungeons & Dragons monsters have eyes all over the place," says Julian Levy, a ninth grader at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C. Two years ago, Levy's knowledge of the role-playing game led him to a unique solution for solving a basic scientific question: Do people focus their gaze on another person's eyes or on the center of the head, where the eyes just happen to be located?

"We were eating dinner and my dad was talking about how, after publishing a paper about gaze tracking, a reviewer said that you could never prove whether people are looking at the eyes or the center of the face," Levy recalls. So he piped up with an idea, offering Dungeons & Dragons characters as an experimental solution. Because many characters have eyes located on their hands, torso, or other areas of the body, a researcher could track viewers' gazes to see what part of the characters they focus on first.

Levy's father, cognitive scientist Alan Kingstone, of the University of British Columbia, loved it. The father-son team got to work, with Kingstone recruiting university students for the experiment and Levy combing the Web for the best examples of D&D beings. He selected 36 photos of Dungeon & Dragon humans, humanoids (nonhumans that still have eyes in the middle of their faces), and monsters (creatures with eyes positioned elsewhere). Levy set up eye-tracker equipment called Eyelink 1000 for 22 student participants, who viewed each of the character photos for 5 seconds.

Kingstone and co-author Tom Foulsham at the University of Essex in Colchester, England, analyzed the eye-tracking data, as they reported Tuesday in Biology Letters. They found that participants first tended to look at the middle of the image, but then tended to fixate on the eyes, regardless of whether the eyes were on the head or elsewhere.

"This paper makes the point explicitly that no, these brain areas are really interested in processing the eyes, not the center of the head," Kingstone says. The human brain's preference for eyes may have evolved as a way for people to communicate quickly and quietly and to convey simple information about a person's age, health, and emotions, he hypothesizes.

"At first blush, these sorts of reactions can seem trivial: OK, so we're slightly more likely to look at the eye region, big deal," says Stephen Shepherd, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York who was not involved in the research. "But these mechanisms are likely foundational to behaviors like eye contact and gaze following, which humans and other primates use to threaten one another, to flirt, and to share experiences and attitudes," he says.

In addition to answering questions in basic biology, the study's findings may prove useful for children with autism, who often struggle in making eye contact with others. Their therapy includes training that teaches them that skill. Now, researchers may be able to apply the new investigative technique as a first step for clarifying whether children with autism seek out the eyes or whether they focus solely on the head.

However, the study used only two-dimensional images that do not gaze back at the viewer, whereas real-world eye contact is "a much more sophisticated dance," Kingstone notes. "Because there's just so much more going on with the eyes in real life, this would never cut it for teaching natural-looking behavior."

- - -

This is adapted from ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science. http://news.sciencemag.org

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Analyst - London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL Server Reporting Analyst (Busine...

Ashdown Group: Microsoft Dynamics Consultant - Watford - £65,000 + Bonus.

£50000 - £65000 per annum + bonus and benefits: Ashdown Group: Dynamics Expert...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - London - up to £48,000

£38000 - £48000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Senior ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower