Although often subtle and rarely talked about, eye contact is an important feature of our social lives. It can help us build relationships, lead us to make character judgements, help us in business, and it even has the power to change how we feel. Eye contact can make a situation comfortable and enjoyable or awkward and tiring. It has to be just right as well – not too long and not too short, not too intense yet not too distant either. There are times when making eye contact is important and there are times when breaking that non-verbal communication is not only natural but necessary. While all that may seem complex, it’s something that most of us seem to know and understand instinctively, but that simply raises more questions than it answers. How do we know when to connect and when to avert our gaze, why do we do it, and why is it so important?

The Importance of a Loving Gaze

Eye contact seems like an innate form of communication, an inherent skill that we know from birth, and research shows that this is probably right. It’s been shown, for example, that babies even just two days old prefer to look at faces that are gazing back at them. By four months, an infant’s brain activity increases when making eye contact with other people[1]. In fact, a lack of eye contact is one of the ways in which autism is identified in children, as looking other people in the eye is such an ingrained social behavior[2]. By adulthood, communicating via eye contact increase bodily awareness and self-consciousness, and research shows that after engaging in this way, we judge the other person as more sophisticated, more self-controlled, morally upstanding, and more socially adept than those who avert their eyes or whose timing is off[3].

It can have even deeper effects too, as shown in a study by Giovanni Caputo in 2015. He paired volunteers and had them stare at either a blank wall or into one another’s eyes, unwaveringly, for ten minutes. Once completed, he questioned participants on their experiences and came to the conclusion that intense, prolonged eye contact can actually alter your state of consciousness. While those staring at the wall reported no change, those who gazed at each other reported seeing hallucinations of monsters, their relatives, and even of their own faces.

Losing Contact

That doesn’t mean we should stare in people’s eyes continuously though. If anything, that will make others feel uncomfortable and may ultimately make you unlikeable. In fact, there are lots of reasons that we might break eye contact with someone, preventing awkwardness being just one. Emotions play a big part in whether and when eye contact is broken, as shyness, embarrassment, guilt, and even boredom can persuade a person to avert their gaze[4]. In more scientific terms, turning away can also prevent what is known as neural adaption - the concept that the brain alters its response to stimuli that doesn’t change, such as when the feeling of the chair beneath you seems to disappear once you’ve been sat for a certain amount of time[5]. New research suggests there could be another reason to avert our eyes though, claiming that occasionally breaking contact can actually make us better conversationalists.

Brain Overload

Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan, recently published a paper in Cognition arguing that breaking eye contact during a conversation actually helps verbal processing and as a result, makes you a better conversationalist[6]. They took 26 volunteers and, using computer generated imagery, gave them a word association test. When maintaining eye contact, participants found it harder and therefore took longer to respond to more difficult words, but when they averted their gaze, the time they needed to respond dropped significantly[7]. This, the researchers suggest, shows that “the dual contact of maintaining eye contact [and thinking up responses] is just too demanding [and] to save itself, the brain pushes for breaking eye contact so it can focus exclusively on finding a word that will fulfill the obligation”[8].

Naturally, the hypothesis needs further testing but it certainly presents an interesting idea: that thinking up ideas and maintaining eye contact use the same mental faculties[9] and by breaking eye contact, you are in effect preventing the brain from overloading. It raises further questions to investigate too – how does this affect the emotional connection that is also broken when eye contact is broken? And if eye contact is culturally different in terms of etiquette and perception, as research shows it is[10], can we assume that looking away has a cultural variable too? If the results of this study are cross-cultural, what are the implications for conversational norms around the world too?

While Kajimura and Nomura’s study seems to ask more questions than it answers, there is a range of previous research that backs them up. In 1998, a study demonstrated that averting your gaze from your surroundings actually aids thinking because it removes distractions and as a result, it can improve concentration and performance when asked difficult questions[11], thus supporting the Japanese research. Likewise, Stephen Christman, a psychologist at the University of Toledo, found that making horizontal eye movements leads to better retrieval of information and memory as it causes the two hemispheres to interact. This new research, then, has a lot of support. So next time you lost eye contact with someone, worry not about the potential loss of emotional connection and instead rejoice in the excellent conversation that you are sure to have!


[1] Christopher Hooton, 2016, Difficulty with eye contact may be a sign of a good conversationalist, study finds, available at:, accessed: 01.21.2017

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Medical Xpress, 2016, A possible explanation for why people find it hard to maintain eye contact when talking, available at:, accessed 01.21.2017

[5] David Nield, 2016, This is why it’s so hard to maintain eye contact while having a conversation, available at:, accessed 01.21.2016

[6] Christopher Hooton, 2016, Difficulty with eye contact may be a sign of a good conversationalist, study finds, available at:, accessed: 01.21.2017

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cited by Hooton, op. cit.

[9] David Nield, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cited by Nield, op. cit.