Why Locking Eyes During a Conversation Is So Difficult

Turns out there's more than awkwardness that keeps us from staring into a person's eyes when having a conversation. Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock/Thinkstock

You know how it's hard to look into someone's eyes while you're talking to them? And not just people whose eyes are like two velvety pools of sunlit honey — it can be difficult to collect and express your thoughts when you're staring into completely regular-looking eyes, too. Face-to-face communication is important, yet holding a steady gaze during conversation reduces even the most eloquent and self-possessed among us into a stammering puddle of "likes" and "ums." Why is that?

A study published last month in the journal Cognition explores why eye contact and verbal processing appear to be connected, even though vision and language have centers in different parts of the brain. The researchers' findings suggest that eye contact, although essential to human behavior, is so mentally taxing that it ends up interfering with our ability to speak.

To study this phenomenon, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura — two researchers from Kyoto University in Japan — asked 26 study participants to play a word-matching game while watching the animated face of a stranger on a TV screen. Male and female faces were equally represented, and some of them gazed directly at the viewer, while others' gazes were averted.

When confronted with each of these faces, the study participants were given a noun and asked to come up with an associated verb as quickly as possible. Some of the nouns, like "knife," were pretty easy to associate with a specific verb — we generally cut with a knife. Other nouns, like "list," were more difficult to associate with a specific verb; after all, you can make a list, check a list, refer to a list and be on a list. Participants had to look at the face on the screen and use each noun in a sentence with the verb of their choosing.

The researchers found that the participants were slower to say an appropriate verb when the face on the video screen looked directly at them rather than away from them. But this only occurred when the verb-association task was complicated, or involved many possible options for related verbs.

According to Kajimura and Nomura, this shows that eye contact doesn't exactly interfere with the brain's ability to choose words, but the mental effort it takes to maintain a mutual gaze overloads the brain's functioning to the point that verb generation can become really tough. The two tasks essentially conflict for cognitive resources.

Other studies have shown that direct eye contact conveys important emotions, and an averted gaze can feel ostracizing. But sometimes it's OK to look away. You owe it to both yourself and your buddy to say something cogent and sensible.