Monsters and a 12-year old boy teach research psychology a lesson

When humans interact with others, they overwhelmingly focus on the face of the person they are communicating with. Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, wanted to know if this was because humans seek out the eyes of those they interact with or if they just focus on the general facial area. The question was relegated to a thought experiment by his peers because you can’t find a human with eyes in places besides the center of her head.

Enter Kingstone’s 12 year old son Julian. If you’re looking for a creature with eyes in an atypical spot, an encyclopedia of fantasy creatures might not be a bad place to start, so he suggested that his father use The Monster Manual, one of the core books for Dungeons and Dragons. Together they developed a study which showed volunteers various slides of creatures with eyes in various locations. It turns out that the center of a face isn’t nearly as enticing without eyeballs, and that even if eyes are located in an abnormal spot, a person will still focus on them. 

This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

As is expected with scientific studies, this will have unseen implications down the road. But this also reveals some tangiable benefit of fantasy worlds: they provide a slightly different lens to understand reality. Videogames already provide scientific insight into the way humans work, and it is unlikely that this study will be the last time alternate worlds shed light on sitatuons that a reality-grounded approach might not.