Sammy Nickalls
August 27, 2015 12:46 pm

When you’re out running errands or grabbing coffee, have you ever accidentally made eye contact with a stranger for a couple seconds? Yeah, that’s always a little awkward. Have you ever tried maintaining eye contact with a stranger for ten minutes? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Well, according to recent research, if you lock eyes with a stranger for ten minutes, things get a little. . . um, freaky.

In a study recently published in Psychiatry Research, researcher Giovanni B. Caputo of the University of Urbino in Italy divided up 20 participants into pairs. They sat across from each other in a dimly lit room (which Caputo said “allowed detailed perception of the fine face traits but attenuated colour perception”), and stared directly into each other’s eyes. Another 20 participants were asked to sit under all the same conditions, except the subject of their gaze was a blank wall — this served as a control group. Both groups were told that the study involved a “meditative experience with eyes open.”

After all that staring, participants were asked to fill out surveys about their experience. . . and here’s where things get weird. The pairs who stared into each other’s eyes said their experience was unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, reporting more intense colors, sounds getting too loud or too quiet, and time slowing down immensely. Their partner’s face started to morph and alter: 90% said their partner’s face looked deformed, while 75% said the face started to morph into a monster. (UMMMM.) And if that’s not strange enough, about 50% said they started to see their own face instead of their partner’s by the end, while 15% said they saw the face of a loved one.

According to Caputo, these visions, which happen during what he calls “interpersonal gazing,” may occur as a result of “dissociation” — losing connection with reality. He hypothesizes that when people are given a single focal point to concentrate on for a certain period of time, the mind begins to zone out; and when it comes back, it takes a bit of time for everything to go back to the way we experience it most of the time. He believes that the facial hallucinations are a byproduct of returning to reality.

Another possibility was that the subjects who were asked to stare at a wall were not given a specific focal point on which to concentrate. Technically, as long as they were still staring at the wall, they could let their eyes flit back and forth how they pleased. However, staring at one particular point, even just a dot on the wall, can cause hallucinations and illusions, according to prior research.

But either way, out of research conducted thus far, this seems to have been one of the most dissociative results yet, BPS Digest points out. Caputo has done previous experiments, such as having his subjects stare at their own eyes in the mirror and found similar results. Who knows — maybe the human eye has something mystical about it that inspires hypnosis. Either way, this kind of sounds like something spooky to try with a friend around Halloween. . . as long as you’re not too afraid of monsters.

(Image via Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present.)

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