It’s sometimes said that the eyes are windows into the soul, revealing deep emotions that we might otherwise want to hide.
Although modern science precludes the existence of the soul, it does suggest that there is a kernel of truth in this old saying: it turns out the eyes not only reflect what is happening in the brain but may also influence how we remember things and make decisions.
Our eyes are constantly moving, and while some of those movements are under conscious control, many of them occur subconsciously. When we read, for instance, we make a series of very quick eye movements called saccades that fixate rapidly on one word after another. When we enter a room, we make larger sweeping saccades as we gaze around.
Then there are the small, involuntary eye movements we make as we walk, to compensate for the movement of our head and stabilise our view of the world. And, of course, our eyes dart around during the ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) phase of sleep.
What is now becoming clear is that some of our eye movements may actually reveal our thought process.
Research published last year shows that pupil dilation is linked to the degree of uncertainty during decision-making: if somebody is less sure about their decision, they feel heightened arousal, which causes the pupils to dilate.
This change in the eye may also reveal what a decision-maker is about to say: one group of researchers, for example, found that watching for dilation made it possible to predict when a cautious person used to saying ‘no’ was about to make the tricky decision to say ‘yes’.
Watching the eyes can even help predict what number a person has in mind. Tobias Loetscher and his colleagues at the University of Zurich recruited 12 volunteers and tracked their eye movements while they reeled off a list of 40 numbers.
They found that the direction and size of the participants’ eye movements accurately predicted whether the number they were about to say was bigger or smaller than the previous one – and by how much. Each volunteer’s gaze shifted up and to the right just before they said a bigger number, and down and to the left before a smaller one. The bigger the shift from one side to the other, the bigger the difference between the numbers.
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