Are Your Eyes Also a Window to Your Brain?

Research shows you can learn a few things about a person by watching where they’re looking.

What can eye-tracking teach us?
What can eye-tracking teach us? Image courtesy of Flickr user Michele Catania

Tracking the eye movements of people as they peruse an item or advertisement or web page has long been a staple of marketers. The goal, of course, is to see where their eyes move and where they linger and then devise ways to get them to linger longer. It’s always felt a little creepy to me.

So it curbed my inner curmudgeon to read recently about research showing you can learn a few things about someone by watching where they’re looking. For instance, a study published in Cognition magazine this month suggests that who a person is relates to how they move their eyes. In this case, the scientists found that people they identified as more “curious”–based on their answers to survey questions–also were more likely to be the ones whose eyes moved freely around photos they were asked to view. Their eyes, it seemed, were true to their curious nature.

Not impresssed? Okay, how about this: Another study done a a few years ago  by psychologists Elizabeth Grant and Michael Spivey found that people whose eyes tended to focus on a particular part of a diagram were most likely to solve a problem–in this case how to use a laser to destroy a tumor in a patient’s stomach. Then, after the researchers highlighted that section of the diagram, twice as many people figured out how to do it. By having their eyes directed to the right place, their brains were able to gather the information they needed.

But what if you tracked the eye movements of an expert, say a surgeon, and then used that as a teaching tool? That’s exactly what researchers at the University of Exeter in Great Britain did last year. First, they recorded where and for how long the eyes of an experienced surgeon were fixed during a simulated surgery.  Then novice surgeons were trained to mimic those eye movements. Those who mastered the technique were able to learn technical surgical skills much more quickly–and were less stressed–than those who didn’t use it as part of their training.

Wonder if this would work on teenage drivers. (See below).

Power gazing

Judging from the reports from last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), reviewers weren’t exactly dazzled by most of the thousands of gizmos and gadgets on display.  But one demo that did seem to fire off some sparks featured a system called Gaze from the Swedish company Tobii Technology.

Gaze uses a web cam to track your eyes and essentially turn them into a cursor. It works like this:  To calibrate your eyes, you first look at an application on the screen, then tap the touch pad to launch it. Infrared lights illuminate your pupils, then two cameras take rapid-fire photos and use them to make 3-D models of your eyes that can follow their movement.

Once your eyes take over, you no longer have to physically scroll  down a page. Just move your eyes down the screen and the text rolls up in response. Or you can scroll horizontally through photos, again just by shifting your eyes.  And then there are the video game possibilites. The demo at CES allowed you to blast asteroids out of the sky simply by staring at them.

I am retina, hear me roar.

The eyes have it

Here are more things scientists are learning by looking into people’s eyes:

  • Read my lips: “Go to sleep”: Researchers at Florida Atlantic University say that starting at six months of age, babies learn to talk by gazing at your lips instead of your eyes.
  • Puppy love: A study published in the latest issue of Current Biology concludes that dogs play close attention to our eye movements and they’re more responsive if you first make eye contact.
  • Could it be because they’re teenagers?: Scientists at Montana State University received 1 $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to use eye-tracking sensors to help determine why young drivers have a hard time recognizing traffic hazards.
  • Eye spy: A device called an EyeBrain tracker is being tested in France to see if it can help diagnose early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Don’t judge a friend by his cover: An eye-tracking study of the new Facebook Timeline found, among other things, that while people noticed the big cover photos first, they spent more time looking at the smaller profile photos.  Oh, and also more people noticed the ads in the new format.

Video Bonus: See for yourself how to play Asteroids with your eyes.

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