Looking through the eyes of others

There’s a fascinating opinion piece by psychologist Michael Tomasello in The New York Times arguing that humans, unlike other apes, have evolved to have the whites of our eyes showing to make social cooperation easier.

The idea is that this allows us to easily work out where other humans are looking, and this can help us to work out focus of attention and intention.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that all great apes, including humans, follow the gaze direction of others. But in previous studies the head and eyes were always pointed in the same direction. Only when we made the head and eyes point in different directions did we find a species difference: humans are sensitive to the direction of the eyes specifically in a way that our nearest primate relatives are not. This is the first demonstration of an actual behavioral function for humans’ uniquely visible eyes.

Link to NYT article ‘For Human Eyes Only’.

2 Comments

  1. gberke
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I have been acknowleding people from a distance for a couple of years, ie, if I meet someones eyes, I smile, nod, just that much. This does occur over quite a distance, sometimes between pedestrian and car or bus…
    The human eye is a very precise locator… we can tell if someone is looking at us. That is really important. Too often though we have no proper response for a met gaze, except one of flat indifference, which is lousy.
    Of course, I do the same at much shorter distances… only note the surprise at how far I can perceive someone looking at me, and smiling, they smile back: I was right. They could see me, they were looking at me, and morevoer, they can see me looking at them.

  2. Posted January 20, 2007 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I noticed the same as gberke said. Even at 20 meters it’s easy to tell weather you are looked at. And if we gaze around, we are very good at spotting eyes that are looking at us. It feels like locking into it.
    Obviously it’s important socially. But maybe it was also important in order to notice preditors.
    Dogs can show the white of their eyes a bit too, but maybe we enabled that by breeding that feature in. I just googled for pictures of wolves, but didn’t find any with white in the eyecorners.
    I think we like our friendly preditors more then we like rabbits, as we like to look into a *pair* of eyes rather then into one eye on one side of a head. I can imagine the Japanese will breed rabbits with both eyes in the front of their faces in 10 years. That must be too cute. :-)


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