Humans are hard-wired to process monsters, humanoids and other such fictional creatures as we do other humans, a new study has found.
The research demonstrates that we look for social, behaviorally relevant information in the eyes of others, even if those individuals are not like any actual species.
The paper was co-authored by 14-year-old Julian Levy, son of co-author Alan Kingstone. Levy was 12 when he first came up with the idea.
"This is a project that we would never have done in my lab if he hadn't suggested it to me," Kingstone told Discovery News.
Kingstone, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Colombia, explained that Julian "suggested it over dinner one day while I was commenting that people believed that it might be impossible to discriminate whether people look at the eyes or just the center of the face."
The answer is important for understanding what brain regions are handling the processing, he continued, with implications for training kids with social deficits, as well as theoretical and computational implications, since many scientific models often assume that the head, rather than the eyes, are being targeted.
Levy, Kingstone and co-author Tom Foulsham presented observers with images of people and characters from the popular fantasy game "Dungeons and Dragons." The latter consisted of "humanoids" (non-human creatures with eyes in the middle of their faces) and "monsters" (bizarre-looking fabrications with eyes positioned elsewhere).
There was a tremendous bias toward looking early and often at the eyes of humans, humanoids and even the monsters. People therefore immediately pay attention to the eyes of others, and not just the middle of heads.
Kingstone explained that "the eyes for the humans and humanoids were in the face of the images, and so people would target the middle of the image and then quickly make an eye movement left, right, diagonally, up or down, or wherever the eye or eyes happened to be," he said. "So spatially the looks for eyes for humans and humanoids versus monsters were different, but what they looked at, eyes, was the same."
Other primates are believed to do this too, so the hard wiring could go beyond even our earliest primate ancestors.
Outside of primates, other animals have also been found to follow an individual's gaze. These include birds, dogs, seals, goats and dolphins.
"Eyes seem to capture one's attention, and also be able to act as a cue to direct another's attention. Understanding the neurological underpinnings of gaze behavior is important, but to date this has been a very difficult question to address," explained Scott Sinnett of the University of Hawaii.
The new paper, he continued, "provides a simple and clever approach to disentangling this by using 'monsters' that have eyes in different areas of the body."
He was also impressed that Levy was so young when he came up with the concept.
"It just goes to show that some ingenuity, a lot of hard work, and an active imagination can lead to some inspiring work," Sinnett said.
Walter Bischof of the University of Alberta's Department of Computing Science is another Levy fan.
"He is an exceptionally gifted young man, and I am convinced he will go on to become an excellent scientist," Bischof told Discovery News. "The idea for this experiment is Julian's. He collected / devised the pictures, he ran the experiments, and he did some of the analyses. I am thoroughly impressed by his talent and work."
The research was published in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters.