The window to the soul

Forget body language – the real key to communication is in the eyes.

Your eyes give away information about mental states such as attention, boredom, attraction and intention. But your pupils give away more.

Pupil dilation varies according to the amount of light entering the eye – the less light, the more the pupil dilates and vice versa. Drug and alcohol use can also affect dilation, but it is also affected by physical, psychological and emotional pleasure. Physical attraction and sexual interest are also known to trigger pupil dilation, although not all the time. Pupils dilate when women look at babies or when hungry men look at food – and that’s true!

But pupils also dilate rapidly in response to information being processed moment by moment – including when people are in rapport or in empathy with each other.

A new study, conducted by researchers at Dartmouth College Social Intelligence Laboratory in New Hampshire, has found that patterns of pupil dilation will reveal when people ‘connect.’

Previous work into attention and connection focussed on what [highlights] people recall after listening to a story, but this requires the participants listening to the story to self-report what they think and feel, and that can be susceptible to bias and other memory issues.

The Dartmouth researchers asked participants to relate their autobiographical stories. They were filmed and their pupil dilations recorded using infrared eye-tracking technology, so the team were able to measure engagement in real-time by evaluating a physiological response – in this case, pupil dilations. This cannot be faked or controlled consciously.

The researchers chose four high expressive and four low expressive video clips to show to listeners with both high and low empathy scores. Listeners watched speakers’ video clips while they also had their pupil dilations tracked.

Pupil dilations reflect conscious attention, so the researchers looked for periods of shared attention by comparing speakers’ and listeners’ pupil dilation patterns for moments of synchrony.

They found that ‘collective pupillary synchrony’ between speakers and listeners were greatest during the emotional peaks of a narrative, but decreased as the story became less engaging.

Listeners with higher empathy listened more attentively, but the results also show that speakers who are highly expressive are more likely to evoke ‘pupillary synchrony,’ thus allowing them to hold their audience’s attention.

To second-test the results, participants also listened to the audio only and were then asked to evaluate how engaging each narrative was by using a physical slide bar. That data was used to record the listener’s reactions to prominent emotional peaks for each narrative.

So… if you’re talking to someone and you’re wondering if whether or not they’re interested, or at least paying attention, a glance at their pupils might give you an indication.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.