The Science Behind the Power of the Eyes

New research helps us understand why the eyes are both powerful and mysterious.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

The cult classic movie Donnie Darko tells a mind-bending tale of high school drama, sleepwalking, and time-travel. In one particular scene, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) peers into the future directly. He sees a portal-like force emerge from his father's chest and float into the kitchen. His father, unaware of this force, follows its path. It's as if the portal that Donnie is seeing is predicting the future a few seconds before it happens. 

In the real world, we don't have such a direct look into another's future actions. However, it doesn't stop our brains from trying. Within seconds of seeing someone, we're forming judgments about what they're thinking and what they're likely to do next. 

Of course, we can't know for sure what the other person's internal experience is. These are only estimations. But these models are incredibly useful in creating informed predictions about how someone is going to act. If someone's walking towards you, it's important to quickly figure out whether they're going to try and hug you or try to hit you. Predicting behavior is crucial to our surviving and thriving in the social world.

Photo by Marina Vitale, Unsplash
Humans are visually dominant creatures, and we pay special attention to others' eye gaze
Source: Photo by Marina Vitale, Unsplash

Eye Gaze, Prediction, and Social Cognition

In constructing these models and making these forecasts, we get clues from a variety of factors: the person's previous behavior, the current situation, etc. But one cue is particularly essential: eye gaze. 

Humans are visually dominant creatures, and what we're looking at is a significant clue to what we're interested in and thinking. Studies have found that when we're looking at someone, we naturally gravitate to the eyes. With this information alone, we're able to accurately predict which object they're likely to pick up, or what part of the room they're walking to. We can't see directly into their "future energy" like Donnie can, but looking into their eyes gets us part of the way there. 

How exactly we use eye gaze to make these forecasts isn't completely clear. However, neuroscientist Michael Graziano has pioneered a compelling way to think about this: When we look at someone's gaze, it’s as if we're detecting an invisible beam shooting out which reflects the intention and attention of its originator. He describes this invisible force as "Substance C." C for "Consciousness."

As he explains, "Substance C is a construct of the prediction engine. It doesn't really exist as such. It's a proxy for the very real, very complicated, neuronal processing occurring in the person's head. Substance C is a simplified, model version of cortical attention." (Graziano 2019)

Substance C is a shorthand model of what is happening in the person's head, and therefore a tool for predicting their next move. Since eye gaze is such a critical component of this predictive tool, when we look at someone, it's as if we see this substance project from their eye gaze.

The Metaphysics of Substance C

Fascinatingly, recent work by Graziano and colleagues suggests that the idea of a force emanating from the eyes is not purely hypothetical. 

Participants viewed a series of images depicting an upright tube that was tilted slightly to one side. Their task was to estimate whether or not, at its current angle, the tube was likely to fall over. In each of the images, a person's face was either staring at the tube or blindfolded. 

Photo recreations by Matt Johnson
Experimental set up of Guterstam et al (2018)
Source: Photo recreations by Matt Johnson

The results indicate that the person's gaze had a significant impact on these judgments. On trials where the tube was tilted towards the face, the estimated tilt angle was larger, as if the gaze itself was holding the tube up. Conversely, the critical angle was smaller when the tube was tilted away, as if the force coming from the eyes is pushing the tube and leading it to fall at a more narrow-angle. 

These effects were not observed when the person's face was blindfolded, suggesting that the results were not due to the faces themselves, but eye gaze specifically. And interestingly, participants showed no awareness of how eye gaze impacted their judgments. 

As Graziano summarizes: "Substance C emanates from a person ... flowing out of the eyes along a straight line. It makes contact with objects in the environment. It has an energy- or will-like quality in the sense that it empowers people to make behavioral choices and thereby act on the world ... It comes automatically, giving us the curious impression that we can perceive other people's consciousness emanating from them." (Graziano 2019)


As social creatures, some of our most advanced capabilities have to do with how we make sense of other people. And most of this processing is so intuitive and automatic that we're completely unaware of how this is done. 

Social psychologists have long known that predicting another's behavior is a crucial mental process and that in calculating this, eye gaze is especially important. 

However, our predictive machinery may actually go well beyond this, as we seem to perceive gaze as a powerful, predictive physical force that emanates from the people we're watching. And in this sense, we all might be a bit more like Donnie Darko than we think.

The post originally appeared on the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro

Facebook image: junpinzon/Shutterstock


Guterstam, A., Kean, H., Webb, F. Kean, S., and Graziano, M. (2018) “An Implicit Model of Other People’s Visual Attention as an Invisible, Force-Carrying Beam Projecting from the Eyes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Guterstam, A., Graziano, M. (2020) Implied motion as a possible mechanism for encoding other people’s attention, Progress in Neurobiology, 101797, ISSN 0301-0082. 

Graziano, Michael S A. (2019) Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience (p. 58). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.