Personality shapes the way that our brains react to eye contact
on 07 June 2015
eyes on the world

I guess at times we all have some difficulty in making eye contact with certain people? So I found it interesting to note a link between personality and eye contact, avoidance and neurosis!

Life, a consequence of what we do not see?

I often notice that clients with high levels of anxiety or stress find it difficult to maintain direct eye contact with me, as well as displaying expressions of discomfort if my stare is too direct or intense on them. Similarly, it is noticeable, as the treatment progresses, that their ability to make more eye contact increases and less discomfort is obvious when I reciprocate. The research below gives some insight into why this may be!

What I find intriguing with this research, is how mindfulness can assist in mental states. Are we able to make more eye contact because we are less anxious or are we less anxious because we make more eye contact? It is certainly old news that exposure to things that challenge us and make us more amenable to these things or situations. So facing life's challenges really is "mind over matter". If you don't mind; it doesn't matter!

The research found that eye contact plays a crucial role when people initiate interaction with other people. If people look at each other in the eye, they automatically send a signal that their attention is focused on the other person. If the other person happens to look back, the two will be in eye contact, and a channel for interaction is opened. Eye contact is thus a powerful social signal, which is known to increase our physiological arousal.

Previous research has suggested that eye contact triggers patterns of brain activity associated with approach motivation, whereas seeing another person with his or her gaze averted triggers brain activity associated with avoidance motivation. This indicates that another person's attention is something important and desirable. However, many people find it discomforting and may even experience high levels of anxiety when they are the focus of someone's gaze.

Researchers at the University of Tartu in Estonia and the University of Tampere in Finland set out to study what lies underneath these individual psychological differences. Does personality modulate how a person reacts to eye contact? Can this difference be measured by brain activity?

"In order to test this hypothesis, we conducted an experiment where the participants' electrical brain activity was recorded while they were looking at another person who was either making eye contact or had her gaze averted to the side. We had assessed the participants' personality with a personality test in advance," Researcher Helen Uusberg explains.

The results showed that personality does indeed modulate the way one's brain reacts to attention from another individual. The eye contact triggered approach-associated brain activity patterns in those participants who scored low on Neuroticism, the personality dimension related to anxiety and self-consciousness. However, if the participant scored high on this personality dimension, the eye contact triggered more avoidance-associated brain activity patterns. The high-scoring participants also wanted to look at the other person with a direct gaze for shorter periods of time and experienced more pleasant feelings when they faced a person with an averted gaze.

"Our findings indicate that people do not only feel different when they are the centre of attention but that their brain reactions also differ. For some, eye contact tunes the brain into a mode that increases the likelihood of initiating an interaction with other people. For others, the effect of eye contact may decrease this likelihood," Professor Jari Hietanen explains.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

Helen Uusberg, Jüri Allik, Jari K. Hietanen. Eye contact reveals a relationship between Neuroticism and anterior EEG asymmetry. Neuropsychologia, 2015; 73: 161 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.05.008