Accidentally make eye contact with a stranger, and things can momentarily feel a little awkward. Keep that stare down going for 10 minutes, however, and things get downright freaky, according to an odd new study published recently in Psychiatry Research and summarized at BPS Research Digest.
Giovanni B. Caputo, of the University of Urbino in Italy, rounded up 40 participants for his study, pairing up 20 of them and instructing them to sit across from each other in a dimly-lit room, gazing directly into each other eyes for 10 minutes straight. The rest of the study volunteers were also corralled into a dimly-lit room, but they weren’t paired up with a buddy; instead, they were told to sit and stare at a wall for 10 minutes.
Afterward, everyone filled out surveys about their experience, and the volunteers who had spent the previous 10 minutes staring into a stranger’s eyes reported some strange stuff indeed. Colors seemed more intense, sounds seemed either louder or quieter than they should be, and time slowed to a crawl. Visually, many of them reported that their partner’s face seemed to alter itself in front of their eyes: 90 percent said their partner’s face started looking deformed and 75 percent said it, at one point, morphed into a monster. Also freaky: Half of them said they eventually saw their own face in their partner’s, and 15 percent said they saw the face of a loved one.
Caputo theorizes that the strange visions may be what happens when one’s consciousness is returning back to reality — that is, the mind spaces out during an exercise like this, and when it tries to come back to the present after the period of dissociation, it takes a second for things to return to normal. This might not have happened for the wall-starers because they were not given a single focal point to stare at for their 10 minutes — if their eyes were allowed to flit about during the alloted time, it’s possible they never quite achieved that dissociative state. Or, perhaps, there’s something hallucination-inducing about staring into a human eye.
The results are similar to a previous experiment by Caputo, which found that people start to see weird things when staring at their own reflection in a mirror for too long. For his part, he writes in the abstract for his paper that his finding could point to a simple way to study hallucinations and dissociative states in the laboratory. For your part, either option sounds like a try-this-at-home activity for a little bit of free weeknight fun.