How Eye Contact Affects Your Memory

Holding another person's gaze momentarily, or eye contact, alters your cognitive functions. Discover what neuroscientist Raquel Marín has to say about it.
How Eye Contact Affects Your Memory

Last update: 12 June, 2021

Have you ever made eye contact and found yourself caught in the gaze of the other person? You may have even forgotten what you were doing or thinking at the moment.

There’s scientific evidence that making eye contact and holding another person’s gaze momentarily alters memory and cognitive capacity.

“Eye contact beats any conversation.”

-Christina Strigas-

Two people enjoying each other's company.

How eye contact affects your memory

A piercing gaze isn’t exclusive to humans. In fact, I remember visiting a zoo as a child and making eye contact with a big male wild boar.

The boar remained motionless afterward, staring into my eyes for a few moments that seemed eternal. What happened at that moment? Was he hypnotized by my gaze? I’ll probably never know the answer. However, that human-boar visual exchange changed my perception of these animals. It’s almost like their memory became “humanized” in mine.

Eye contact and losing your mind

Although it may seem like the title of a romantic song, scientific data indicates that holding the gaze of another person, even an unknown one while performing a mental task, makes you lose concentration. The exchange of glances must be over three seconds for this phenomenon to occur. It may lead to momentary cognitive alterations from that moment on. Continue reading for some examples.

In a study conducted by Japanese scientists, a group of selected volunteers had to associate kindred words while watching eyes staring at them on a screen. Those subjected to “the gaze” were slower associating them, compared to the group that didn’t stare at the screen.

The researchers concluded that a brain engaging in intellectual activity requires concentration. In fact, mere eye contact interferes with cognitive ability. Thus, it impairs the mental faculties involved in successfully performing other simultaneous cognitive tasks.

Avoid eye contact if you don’t want to forget

Another interesting study revealed that staring for a few moments could alter memories. Participants had to recount events from their past life in the study. Then, the first group fixed their gaze on an established point on a screen. The second group fixed it on a screen and then freely moved their eyes over it.

Can you predict what happened? Any details of the memories of the past they recounted while staring at a fixed point were vaguer. They also described them in less detail than those whose eyes looked freely during the story.

The scientists concluded that staring at a fixed point might compromise the cognitive resources needed for autobiographical memory reconstruction.

A woman's eye.

Reading the eyes

Pupil movement often gives away the feelings that lie behind it. For example, the pupils dilate when you’re surprised, emotional, or intellectually excited. Conversely, your eyes narrow and your pupils reduce in size when you’re disgusted or displeased. Don’t even try, as your pupils give you away even if you try to conceal it.

People have known that the pupils dilate due to sexual arousal since ancient times. Thus, dilated pupils have always been an attribute of beauty in all cultures.

Some say that women in the Roman Empire consumed the belladonna plant to dilate their pupils and be more attractive. This plant contains atropine, which exerts this dilating effect. They also used belladonna as a narcotic or aphrodisiac. Its excessive consumption is toxic, though.

In short, the eyes are a powerful tool of seduction and oblivion.

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