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Time Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Gazing into someone else's eyes shortens our subjective sense of time.

Key points

  • Meeting someone's gaze alters many of our cognitive processes and behavior.
  • A recent study at the Université de Genève explored the effect of direct gaze on our sense of the passage of time.
  • The study found that gazing into someone's eyes shortens our perception of time by capturing our attention.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

It is a common observation that when we look into the eyes of a “special someone,” time seems to slow down, or even, in extreme circumstances, to come to a complete stop. Poetry anthologies and Pinterest boards alike abound with references to the clock-stopping power of the human gaze. So very popular is this trope in the literature and lore of romance that it is easy to think of it merely as a figure of speech—a conventional formulation of the “power of love” to intrude upon our lives without warning and create a watershed moment separating our past from our future. While the image of a clock stopping as we gaze into someone’s eyes certainly fits nicely into a poem or story about romance, a recent study at the Université de Genève, Switzerland, suggests that the notion is not entirely figurative, nor is the phenomenon exclusively confined to glances exchanged between “special” someones.

The eyes have it.

Scientific investigation, along with our own personal experience, has long shown that gazing directly into someone else’s eyes makes us feel somehow different from the way we feel when we are not looking directly into someone’s eyes (when we watch them unobserved, for example, or avert our gaze while interacting with them). In an effort to determine whether the “multiple effects on cognitive processes and behavior” produced by direct gaze are caused by “attentional capture” or “increased arousal,” the researchers at the Université de Genève investigated the way in which meeting someone’s gaze affected people’s estimation of the passage of time, with attentional capture predicting an underestimation of time and arousal predicting an overestimation.

According to an “internal clock model” of time estimation, our subjective estimation of time relies on “pacemaker-accumulator processes.” An internal pacemaker of some sort emits pulses at a given rate, and the accumulation of these pulses is monitored by a “switch,” with a higher number of pulses corresponding to a longer perceived duration of time. Physiological arousal speeds up the rate of temporal pulses, so that the perceived duration of time is longer.

Attentional capture, on the other hand, results in a decrease in perceived duration of time, since attention is distracted away from time perception, and temporal pulses are lost. If meeting someone’s gaze produces physiological arousal, then time should seem to speed up, relative to actual elapsed time. If it produces attentional capture, time should seem to slow down.

Aroused or distracted?

To determine exactly what kind of impact direct gaze has upon our perception of the passage of time, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which participants were presented with images of eyes or eyelike objects on a flat screen and asked to classify the duration of these images on the screen as either long or short (relative to anchor stimuli with which they had been familiarized in a training phase preceding the test phase of each experiment). The first experiment involved photographs of full (as opposed to partial) faces. Each trial began with a fixation cross in the center of the screen, followed by a photograph of a face with the gaze deviated 15°. Following this photograph, the same face was presented again with the gaze shifted by 15° either toward or away from the observer. This image remained on the screen for a randomly assigned duration somewhere between the long and short anchor stimuli, after which it was followed by the initial picture with gaze deviated by 15°, and then a black screen.

At this point, participants were asked to classify the duration of the stimulus as either short or long. In response to the toward condition (direct gaze), participants underestimated the passage of time by an average of 33ms, while estimations of time duration in the away condition (averted gaze) were no different from the average stimulus duration. From the participants’ perspective, time seemed to slow down in the presence of a direct gaze.

Two other experiments introduced variations of the face photographs but were otherwise identical. In one of these experiments, the eye region alone (eyes and eyebrows) was presented to remove head orientation cues offered by the full face. In the other experiment, the full face was shown upside down “to eliminate global in favor of local face processing.”

Just as with the full-face condition, the eyes-only condition and the upside-down condition both resulted in an underestimation of time. The effect was even present in an experiment which didn’t involve faces at all (whether full, partial, or inverted), but presented participants instead with eye-like geometric figures which “preserved the strong contrast between the inner and outer part of the eye” (small black squares inside larger white rectangles). Even with these figures that only abstractly suggested eyes, participants underestimated stimulus duration in the toward, as compared to the away, condition.

Interestingly, one variation that failed to produce a significant underestimation of time was a static, as opposed to a dynamic, presentation of direct gaze. When a full face was presented between two blank screens, instead of being preceded and followed by a picture deviated 15° to create the appearance of motion, there was no difference in the estimated time duration between the toward and the away conditions. For direct gaze to cause the underestimation of time observed in the other experiments, it had to give the appearance of shifting toward the participants, rather than statically gazing out from the screen.

Looking into someone's eyes shortens our sense of time.

Taken together, the experiments established that shifts of gaze toward an observer result in an underestimation of time relative to shifts of gaze away from an observer, suggesting that we experience attentional capture rather than physiological arousal in the presence of a direct gaze. As a result of the temporal pulses that we overlook due to attentional capture, when someone turns toward us and looks us directly in the eyes, time really does, in fact, seem to slow down. The researchers speculate that this temporal distortion might confer an adaptive advantage, given that human beings are a social species, and underestimating the passage of time during direct eye contact might prolong social interactions.

Whatever adaptive advantage it may offer, the idea that looking into someone eyes can alter the flow of time is more than just a poetical convention. Whether it’s within the lines of a song or across a crowded room, meeting someone else’s gaze really can make time stand still.

References

Burra, Nicolas, and Dirk Kerzel. “Meeting Another's Gaze Shortens Subjective Time by Capturing Attention.” Cognition, Elsevier, 19 Apr. 2021, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027721001530.

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