Is This Normal? “I Don’t Know Where to Look When I’m Talking to Someone”


Oct 16, 2019


Illustration by Shreyaa Krritika Das

In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?

Have you ever been in the middle of a long conversation, in which the other person has been speaking for a while, and suddenly you are hit with the realization that you have absolutely no idea what part of their face to stare at? As someone who (sometimes unwittingly) gets into long debates almost all of the time, this happens to me frequently. I’m nodding, looking at my conversation partner’s general face, and then, a sort of discomfort hits me — Do I stare at their left eye or right eye? Are they going to think my eyes are flitting between them too fast? Do I stare at their forehead? Will they think I’m not listening to them? Or do I stare at their mouth? Oh god, they’ll think I want to kiss them. The more I try to focus on where to look, the more panicked I get, and obviously, the less able I am to pay attention to what they’re saying.

There are several theories that can be applied to this visual disillusionment that occurs during long conversations. Neural adaptation is a mechanism in the brain that occurs when prolonged exposure to unchanging stimuli dulls the brain’s response to it. Extrapolating it to listening to someone narrating a long-winding tale about their exploits on an island vacation, for example, will affect the brain’s response to the person’s face, which can manifest in our visual perception of them.

“Neural adaptation, the mechanism by which neurons decrease or stop their response to unchanging stimulation, is thought to underlie perceptual fading during prolonged gazing at an object or scene,” the Scientific American reported.

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Following the dulling of visual perception, another visual phenomenon that occurs is the Troxler effect, in which fixating on a particular object for a long period of time creates an optical illusion that results in the fading of certain visual aspects of the object, starting from the periphery. Fixating on the island vacationer’s face for a long time, then, can result in the Troxler effect, wherein their face starts to look hazy, and we’re suddenly very conscious of that unsettling fact.

So, what to do next? No worries, our eyes have it covered. When this happens, a visual reflex, so to speak, of the body kicks in, called microsaccades — microscopic, involuntary eye movements — that attempt to restore the visual perception that has been dulled. Blinking, or making involuntary eye movements, can refresh the neuronal responses, the Scientific American reported. But since the general direction of the island vacationer’s face has already been dulled out or faded, our brains try to zero in on different aspects of their face for stimulus. Thus ensues a constant search, through a roving gaze, over different facial features, in hopes that a stimulus can provide a (short) respite to the brain’s fluctuating sleep-to-active-to-sleep mode. Or, you know, they stop talking, but telling them to shut up would be rude.

There are many remedies, tips and tricks to this predicament out in the vast internet universe — misconceptions about the brain’s two hemispheres have birthed an old wives’ tale of how if you look into a person’s left eye, you’re connecting with them emotionally and therefore might be able to pay better attention, because the left brain hemisphere processes emotions. This is false, Refinery 29 reported. Another trick, mainly to negate the need for constant flitting between both eyes, is to stare at the bridge of a person’s nose while they’re talking (it’s impossible to look into both at once). Most of the solutions to the problem, however, point toward one thing — eye contact. Pages after pages on Google are brimming with tips and tricks on how to maintain eye contact, how much eye contact to make, when to hold long vs. short glances, etc.

The importance of eye contact has been iterated and stressed in all spheres of life, as a somewhat magical tool for communication, from professional work environments to romantic relationships. If you look down while talking to someone, it might signify you’re submitting to the other person; if you look away, it might seem like you’re too high and mighty, or self-important, to pay attention to the face of the person speaking to you; breaking eye contact is believed to signal you don’t want to continue a conversation due to shame, embarrassment or neuroticism; looking away while speaking during a conversation can signal you’re unprepared, Inc reported. The implications of not making eye contact are several, and it seems, severe, so much so there exist video apps that help you practice, Inc reported. But what about mere mortals like me, who find it difficult to make eye contact in social settings?

Not being able to hold eye contact is not just a personality quirk — many factors in the brain influence the inability to make eye contact, including mental health-related issues, such as having social anxiety, or autism, which can also deter someone from making eye contact. Thankfully, to counter page-after-page full of advice on Google, research suggests making that eye contact during a conversation is not all it’s cracked up to be.

A Japanese study published in the journal Cognition shows that trying to maintain eye contact uses up precious cognitive resources that then make it difficult to focus on speaking, and therefore on the conversation at hand. Researchers asked 26 participants to associate a verb with a noun they were given — if the participants were given “milk,” they might respond with “drink.” The difficulty of the word-association game varied among participants. They also had to watch a face on a screen in front of them while they played the game. The face on the screen took turns staring straight ahead where the study participant stood, and to the side. 

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When the word-association was difficult and the participants were making eye contact with the face on the screen, they took longer to respond, in comparison to when they were matching an equally difficult word but didn’t have to make eye contact. Researchers concluded that eye contact hampered the participants’ ability to think — cognition goes uninterrupted when the brain is not partly focusing on maintaining eye contact. 

It’s clear the solution to my predicament is not eye contact — if I’m trying to make my brain focus, and if making eye contact is going to deplete my brain’s resources, then I’m sorry, I’d rather look away and be engaged in the conversation, than constantly attempting to pretend to focus.

And what’s more, science not only says it’s normal but even makes a case for it to be encouraged. Case, and eyes, closed.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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