Gaze detection

Our perception is, more often that we might guess, framed by our brain’s immersion in social interaction. One such perception is “gaze detection,” i.e., that sense that someone is looking at you. This is sometimes known as the “Psychic Staring Effect” (or Scopaesthesia).


National Geographic’s photo of young Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula’s piercing gaze. Is she looking at you?

In 1898 Psychologist Edward B. Titchener wrote that a class of his students believed they could “feel” someone staring at them from behind, which would force them to turn around. Since then many have claimed that the Psychic Staring Effect is actually a psychic phenomenon, but that notion has been discredited many times. The reasons for gaze detection are much more interesting.

The evolutionary importance of gaze detection 
There are very good reasons for human’s to be hypersensitive to gaze detection. The ability to tell where someone is looking is a critical non-verbal communication that can keep us alive by providing the an early warning system of an impending attack – we are “hard-wired” to err on the side of caution. Gaze detection also serves as an important social survival tool, to help us determine if someone has interested in us. Gaze detection is followed by direct eye contact, which is one of the most powerful non-verbal signals we can tap: it can convey intimacy, trust, intimidation, and influence. Even infants gaze at their parents to get attention and secure social bonds. The evolution of gaze detection is then evident – it’s an essential survival tool.

Factors of the gaze detection system

  • Gaze detection is an indicator that our peripheral vision may provide more information to our brains than we are consciously aware.
  • Gaze detection may be triggered by head and body positions. Reading specific body language clues likely alerts our brain to pay closer attention to the eyes.
  • Brain imaging has shown that superior temporal sulcus brain cells are activated when we see that we are being stared at.
  • The gaze detection system is particularly accurate at a distance. Human eyes make it easier to distinguish the dark center from the rest of the visible (white) eyeball. This makes gaze detection accurate within just a few degrees – we can tell if someone is looking at us or over our shoulders.
  • Gaze detection leads to direct eye contact, which provides crucial and complex communication for survival and reproductive success.

Web applications
Only two possible uses come to mind:

  1. There may be some application for images in marketing through the Web – it’s difficult to get users to look at advertising photos, a direct gaze may help.
  2. Direct eye contact may prove powerful in virtual reality applications/games.

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