A recent study could make the student staring at the lecture hall floor or out the classroom window the new teacher’s pet.

According to a paper published in the September issue of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, when youngsters avert their gaze from the face of someone questioning them, they become more adept at solving challenging problems.

Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, has been studying the phenomenon of gaze aversion for several years. She has noted that when both children and adults are confronted with a mental task, they tend to look away from the person who posed it.

“We always find that gaze aversion peaks when children and adults are thinking about things,” she said. “We’ve also always found that there’s an increase in gaze aversion as material gets harder. It does seem that both children and adults avert their gaze in order to try and control cognitive load.”

In an attempt to more conclusively determine whether gaze aversion actually improves thinking, Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues turned to a pool of five-year-olds. Typically, when kids are left to their own devices, they avert their gazes only about 40 percent of the time, she said. But Doherty-Sneddon and her team trained their subjects to completely avert their gazes while pondering moderately difficult arithmetic and verbal-reasoning questions.

“We got a significant increase in gaze aversion behavior very rapidly with that simple training and immediately saw a significant increase in response accuracy,” she said.

It is hard, however, for humans to ignore faces, which the brain recognizes as especially worthy of attention.

“Right from birth, we are tuned into human faces, and that lasts throughout our lives,” Doherty-Sneddon said.

This role of faces, and of eye contact in particular, may help explain the advantage of gaze aversion while learning, said Paul Whalen, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth University whose work focuses on the amygdala, the area of the brain involved in emotional learning. Eye contact between two people can increase the activity of their amygdalas, he noted in an email.

“If one thinks of the brain in terms of areas that specialize in affective processing and then others that work on more cognitive processing, there is some data that suggests when one is high, the other is low,” he said. “So, if amygdala [activity] is higher when eye contact is fixed between interlocutor and subjects, then activation of cognitive regions could be lower (and correlated with poorer performance).”

Whalen also noted that eye contact with an adult may be especially stressful for a child and could exacerbate further slow cognitive procesing.

“My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Swiderski was a big ‘You look at me when I ask you a question’ type of teacher,” he said. “I always got those wrong. It seems to me there might be as much to learn here for teachers as there is for five-year-olds.”

Educators could use gaze aversion as a diagnostic tool, Doherty-Sneddon said. For instance, when a child is averting his gaze, he is likely working on a problem, and a teacher trying to help by rephrasing the question may interrupt the child’s thought-process. If the student, on the other hand, is looking at the teacher, he may be looking for clarification, she said.

Doherty-Sneddon said it is not yet known whether persons who avert their gazes focus on anything else. She said she hopes to perform a study using an eye-tracker to find out where subjects look when they shift focus away from faces.

Originally published September 14, 2006


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