Are you listening? Your pupils don't lie


Stuck in a boring conversation? Careful to flaunt interest. There is a detail of your face that is a faithful thermometer of involvement and attention: the movements of the pupils.

When we are listening, these expand and contract in unison with those of the speaker: it happens, in particular, when the speech reaches the peak of emotion, and the empathy with the interlocutor is stronger. The coordinated "dance" of pupil reflexes is maximum with the most expressive speakers.

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Work in progress. The pupils respond to the amount of light that hits the eye, but not only. Past research has shown that they expand rapidly even when we are analyzing new information segments.

Researchers at the University of Dartmouth (United States) have now exploited this phenomenon to measure empathy and emotional involvement while listening. Many of the studies on attention and connection with the interlocutor are based on self-assessment questionnaires; but the reflection of the pupils, which cannot be controlled "on command", is considered a more reliable parameter.

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Tell me about you. The experiment, which involved 18 students, saw part of the volunteers try their hand at an autobiographical, videotaped speech, and a part in the role of listeners. The pupil movements of each were recorded with an infrared eye-tracking system. A group of "independent" volunteers gave a score to the most emotionally involving moments of the various videos.

Same music. The rhythms of dilation of the pupils of speakers and listeners were then compared: in moments of emotional climax, when the conscious attention of the "public" was maximum, the reflection of the pupils between the interlocutors seemed highly coordinated, even if the two they only saw through a screen. The next step will be to study this synchrony live and simultaneously.