If eye contact has always felt a bit overwhelming for you, it’s not all in your head.
Maintaining direct eye contact really is strenuous for the brain, according to new research, and it uses up scarce cognitive resources that we need for things like reasoning and verbal processing.
There are many reasons for avoiding eye contact ― social anxiety, being lost in thought, or feeling strong emotions like guilt or embarrassment ― but sometimes we drop another’s gaze simply because it’s too mentally taxing.
A Japanese study published in the December issue of the journal Cognition found there is some interference between eye contact and verbal processing in the brain, which may be why we periodically avert our eyes during conversations.
The researchers found that eye contact uses the same mental resources as complex reasoning ― so, when carrying on a conversation that requires us to reason, we may periodically drop eye contact as a way to conserve those cognitive resources. In other words, maintaining eye contact can take a lot of effort.
“Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation,” the study authors wrote. “This suggests that there is interference between these processes.”
For the study, participants were asked to watch a video screen with a person’s face on it, and were asked to stare into the person’s eyes continuously as they performed a verbal task. Sometimes, the eyes on the screen were directed toward the participant, and other times the eyes looked to the side.
Over time, the verbal task was made more complex and difficult. When the task was still easy, making eye contact with the face on the screen did not affect the participants’ performance. But when the task became more difficult, their performance was hindered by direct eye contact with the face on the screen.
Eye contact made the participants struggle to perform complex tasks. This seems to be because the brain becomes bogged down with competing demands, and cognitive resources needed for reasoning were diverted in order to maintain eye contact.
Other studies have shown that eye contact can interfere with visual thinking, but the new research is the first to show that the interference related to eye contact goes beyond visual thinking to more general cognitive processes as well.
So, if you need to have an important conversation with a friend or co-worker, try doing it while walking, rather than sitting face to face. You might find that it’s easier for you to express your thoughts and ideas without too much eye contact distracting you.