Why is it difficult to maintain eye contact while having a conversation?

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Why is it so difficult to keep looking someone in the eye during a conversation? According to recent research, our brain simply cannot manage two things at one time: the verbal aspect, and the fact of concentrating on the other person’s face. 

It can often happen that we look away from the person we are talking to during a conversation. Sometimes, the urge to look elsewhere even becomes overwhelming. Is it simply embarrassment? Social awkwardness? In certain cases, it is clear that such breaks in eye contact can be due to the fact of wanting to escape an awkward or boring situation. But in other cases, is there a more ‘scientific’ explanation for the phenomenon? In their article, published in the journal Cognition, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura from the University of Kyoto in Japan, describe experiments carried out with volunteers, suggesting that our brain gets “scrambled”, as it is unable to manage two apparently independent processes.

In order to better understand what happens in the brain during a conversation, researchers asked 26 volunteers to participate in a word association game using common words, during which a person was asked to link a verb to a given word as quickly as possible. At the same time, participants had to look at animations of faces, some of which made eye contact, and others which were looking away. The researchers asked the participants to think up of links between easily associated words, and of words with many common associations. For example, thinking up of a verb associated with the word “knife” is relatively easy: “cut” or “stab” comes to us easily. Another example would be the word “ball”, for which the most common response was generally “throw”. Other associations, on the other hand, were more difficult to find, such as with the word “folder”: you can choose from open, close, consult, fill, delete, search, etc.

First of all, subjects found it more difficult to come up with more complex word associations when eye contact was established. “Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation…. This suggests that there is interference between these processes”, explain the researchers in their paper. The scientists noted in particular that the effect becomes more pronounced when people were trying to come up with less familiar words, which is a task thought to use the same mental resources as making eye contact.

The research duo suggest that their findings indicate that the dual task of maintaining eye contact (and the intimate connection that this implies) while searching for a word in the brain to respond to a complex demand, is simply too much. To avoid overload, the brain breaks eye contact in order to concentrate exclusively on the problem solving task.