Imagine this scene: you are observing a stranger sitting in front of you on the subway when, suddenly, the man starts staring straight into his pupils. That unexpected look will probably embarrass you, and scientists have now discovered why.
Eye contact with other people activates - or rather awakens - the awareness of our body, making the brain immediately more aware of the sensations that are breaking out inside us. What might seem a somewhat abstract concept has been demonstrated experimentally by researchers at the Université de Vincennes in Saint-Denis, France.
How does it feel? The psychologist Matias Baltazar asked 32 volunteers to observe a series of images of positive or negative situations proposed in sequence on a screen, and to report their emotions about each. To verify the reliability of their responses, all participants were connected to a device to measure skin conductance, ie the emotional reaction aroused by each image, detected through sweating of the hands.
Direct, or distant. Each positive or negative photo was preceded by another image, this time of a male or female face: some faces stared at the volunteers beyond the screen directly in their eyes, others had their eyes turned elsewhere. The researchers found that, after looking at the faces that fixed them in the eyes, the subjects proved more effective in describing, precisely, their physiological reactions to positive or negative photos.
More aware. "Our results indicate that an adult's body awareness becomes more acute when we are subject to the gaze of another, " says Baltazar. The researchers verified that the improvement concerns only the performances connected with body awareness, and not - for example - mnemonic abilities or other cognitive abilities.
Perspectives. The discovery could be used to stimulate interoceptive awareness in people whose body vision is distorted, as in those suffering from anorexia nervosa or depressive disorders.