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Friday, November 9, 2012

Advances in science thanks to monsters and kids

How many scientific papers did you publish in high school? If the answer is none, then you’re one behind Julian Levy of Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia. He and his father, Alan Kingstone of the University of British Columbia, investigated whether it’s specifically the eyes or more generally the middle of the face that attracts our attention when we follow someone’s gaze. The results were published in the journal Biology Letters.

Many animals will follow another creature’s gaze. People certainly do this, and you can even induce a dog into looking where you’re looking. However, Kingstone wasn’t convinced that we’re really looking into each other’s eyes. Perhaps we’re simply focusing on the middle of the face, and the eyes just happened to be positioned there. How could you tell the difference? Enter Kingstone’s twelve year old son Levy, and the Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons. Humans may invariably have their eyes in the centers of their faces, but monsters have no such restrictions. 

So, if confronting a monster like the one above, where would a person spend most of his time looking? To answer this, Levy fitted 22 student volunteers with some eye-tracking equipment and had them watch video images of humans, humanoids with eyes in the centers of their faces, and creatures with eyes in completely different and unexpected places. Subjects quickly fixated on the eyes in each image regardless of where on the creature those eyes happened to be.

It seems obvious that we must be tracking eye-movements rather than facial postions when you consider that we can easily follow a gaze even if the indicator doesn’t move his head at all. Still, it was possible that we were wrong about this. Levy got a first authorship for coming up with a way to test the eye versus face problem and for doing the bulk of the experiments.

More from Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Levy, J., Foulsham, T., & Kingstone, A. (2012). Monsters are people too Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0850