Our brains are truly amazing. Facial recognition is one brilliant example of how quickly and mysteriously our brains work to help us navigate and function in relationships and with the world around us.
With just one glance at another’s face, our brains are able to effortlessly process a huge amount of information: the person’s age, race, gender, state of health, mood and expression, and the direction of their gaze. The volume of social cues that we can gather simply by watching one another’s faces is essential for our ability to engage successfully and safely with others.
Eye contact is a particularly important element in facial recognition, and allows us to gather much more information than we otherwise would. But because direct eye contact can often feel threatening, this creates a real social disadvantage for those who have difficulty making eye contact, as is the case with autism, or those with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Interestingly, scientists have known for a long time that we tend to focus on the left side of the face we’re viewing, a phenomenon called ‘left gaze bias’ that is thought to be connected to the fact that it is our brain’s right hemisphere that manages the task of facial recognition and processing.
We’ve also known for some time that ‘reading’ a face that is upside down is extremely challenging for us, but not much was known about our ability to read faces that are rotated or tilted.
A new study on ‘facial fixation’ out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, sheds light on this middle ground. Lead researcher of the study, Nicolas Davidenko, used eye-tracking technology to find the answers, some of which were very surprising.
What he found was that, when the head was tilted by as little as 11 degrees off centre, the ‘left-gaze bias’ completely disappeared, and was replaced by an equally strong ‘upper eye bias,’ in which the viewer tended to look at whichever eye was higher. This is in contrast to looking at both eyes when the head is upright.
Davidenko felt that these findings could be used therapeutically for people with autism, and for situations in which direct eye contact might feel threatening or uncomfortable. He found that people looked more at the eyes in faces with a slight head tilt, perhaps because the tilt made them seem more approachable.
This important finding could help those with autism or similar eye-contact limitations to gather more social cues and information, thereby leveling the playing field somewhat in interpersonal interactions.
He suggested the head tilt could be used deliberately, such as for people affected by amblyopia (lazy eye), which can be uncomfortable for others. By tilting their head so that their dominant eye is up, “that taps into our natural tendency to fix our gaze on that eye,” Davidenko said.
Apparently, there is a limit to the effectiveness of the head tilt. The strongest effect was noted with a rotation of 45 degrees, but beyond that the upper-eye bias decreased. At a 90-degree rotation “people don’t know where to look, and it changes their behavior totally,” said Davidenko.