12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad with his research

By Ed Yong | October 30, 2012 8:00 pm

Image by Steven James, http://www.silverblades-suitcase.com/

Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, had a problem: all humans have their eyes in the middle of their faces, and there’s nothing that Kingstone could do about it. His 12-year-old son, Julian Levy, had the solution: monsters. While some monsters are basically humanoid in shape, others have eyes on their hands, tails, tentacles and other unnatural body parts. Perfect. Kingstone would use monsters. And Julian would get his first publication in a journal from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most august scientific institutions.

In 1998, Kingstone showed that people will automatically look where other people are looking. Other scientists have since found this gaze-copying behaviour among many other animals, from birds to goats to dolphins. It seems fairly obvious why we would do this—we get an easy clue about interesting information in the world around us. But what are we actually doing?

There are two competing answers. The obvious one is that we’re naturally drawn to people’s eyes, so we’ll automatically register where they’re looking. Indeed, one part of the brain – the superior temporal sulcus – is involved in processing the direction of gazes. The equally plausible alternative is that we’re focused more broadly on faces, and the eyes just happen to be in the middle. After all, we see faces in inanimate objects, and we have a area in our brains—the fusiform face area (FFA)—that responds to the sight of faces.

One evening, Kingstone was explaining these two hypotheses to Julian over dinner. “A colleague had said that dissociating the two ideas — eyes vs. centre of head — would be impossible because the eyes of humans are in the centre of the head,” Kingstone said. “I told Julian that when people say something is impossible, they sometimes tell you more about themselves than anything.”

Julian agreed. He thought it would be easy to discriminate between the two ideas: just use the Monster Manual. This book will be delightfully familiar to a certain brand of geek. It’s the Bible of fictional beasties that accompanied the popular dice-rolling role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Regularly updated, it bursts with great visuals and bizarrely detailed accounts of unnatural history. It has differently coloured dragons, undead, beholders… I think one edition had a were-badger. Parts of this blog are essentially a non-fictional version of the Monster Manual.

Levy knew that the Manual contained many nightmarish monsters whose eyes are not on their faces. If people still looked at the eyes of these creatures, it would answer the question. Kingstone loved the idea. He persuaded Julian’s teacher to give him some time away from school to test his ideas for himself, and she agreed.

Levy asked 22 volunteers to stare at the corner of a screen, press a key to bring up one of 36 monster images, and let their eyes roam free. All the while, he tracked their eye movements with a camera (which he’s modelling in the photo above).

The recordings showed that when volunteers looked at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with more or less human shapes), their eyes moved to the centre of the screen, and then straight up. If the volunteers saw monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the centre, and then off in various directions. The volunteers looked at eyes early and frequently, whether they were on the creatures’ faces or not.

This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

In the meantime, the paper describing the results—delightfully entitled “Monsters are people too”—has been published in Biology Letters. Kingstone wrote it with postdoc Tom Foulsham, but Levy did the rest. He prepared the images, trained himself to use the eye-tracker, ran the experiment, and coded all the data. Accordingly, at the current age of 14, he’s the first author on the paper.

Reference: Levy, Foulsham & Kingstone. 2012. Monsters are people too. Biology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2012.0850

See also: Eight-year-old children publish bee study in Royal Society journal


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

Comments (34)

  1. Mike de Fleuriot

    Stupid beholder, always watch the eyes around the head, that is where the trouble lies.

  2. tom rogers

    Don’t forget to wear the helmet, or you’ll be a slave in the crystal mines, too!

  3. “The DOI you requested —
    — cannot be found in the Handle System.”

    Until the DOI system gets its act together, here is the direct link:

    It’s open access!

  4. Winterwind

    Cool. They could have used Andalites, too.

  5. Ed, the simple fact that you openly acknowledged the fact that parts of your blog are a nonfiction Monster Manual has just given you at least a +3 to Charisma in my book. Er, on your character sheet. (I keep one for all my fellow science writers, naturally.)

  6. Jim

    Ha, love the first author affiliation, his secondary school 😉

    Now, do we also think this 14 yr old managed to pull off another coup, because if I’m not mistaken, he’s given the ‘Humanoid’ a big and visible schlong. I was looking at the sixth and seventh fixation, wondering why the Humanoid was getting so much eye-time below the waste compared with the human (with her curves). We might argue it was due to him having four horse legs – meh – I think a secondary observation in this paper is that of the ‘double-take’ moment “Hang on, is that a schlong?”

  7. Kenny Smith

    I wonder how people would react to a monster with a foot where its ear is supposed to be: I imagine they’d have a good stare at the foot. It’s not clear to me to what extent their results are driven by people looking at a familiar body-part in a weird place, rather than specifically seeking out the eyes. Nice D&D stims though.

  8. Chris

    Now put breasts on the monsters and see where the eyes go 😀

  9. Ninju Bohra

    They could have also used the Creature Creator from the Spore game to put eyes, ears and other parts (:-) wherever on the ‘body’ they wanted!

  10. Archwright

    Two words: Night Hag
    Two other words: Eye bleach.

  11. Dustin Rodriguez

    Jim: There is good evidence already that people, at least men (I believe the effect is less pronounced in women), do look at the crotch of other people and even other animals automatically. It shouldn’t be surprising at all that people are ‘schlong-seeking’.

    Despite our cultures interpretations, sex is a basic bodily function that all people need. The social utility of it was as important to survival as eating and avoiding predators was while we evolved. The effect might be amplified by the fact that our culture practices such radically extreme starvation of this basic bodily function as norm. We’ve got lots of good evidence that this causes widespread health problems and suffering, and none that it provides any benefit that couldn’t be had without all the costs through other means… but no one seems much interested in entertaining any sort of social change to improve the situation.

    But yeah, anyone who tells you they don’t take a quick look at genitals as soon as they meet someone is probably just unaware of it. Gaze tracking will always find them out.

  12. julian

    @Ninju that is a great idea if we do any further work on this I think we will try this

    @jim The images for examples were not used in the real study

  13. Hey Julian! Thanks for popping over and answering questions. Very cool study.

  14. Jens P

    Were-Badger? What you don’t want to mess with is the Land Shark! Comes with shark fin and legs and the other usual paraphernalia. It brings a whole new concept to Jaws.

  15. Kevin

    I’ve always found it uncomfortable talking to someone wearing sunglasses, maybe this is because I have no idea where they’re looking and I’m always looking for that Q from the eyes..

  16. matthew

    Ctrl + F: Bu if

    Just a little typographic error.

  17. Brett

    In my social psychology course I did an experiment with eye contact wherein I, at my job as a cashier, would force customers to make eye contact. Lo and beholder (puns are fun), people demonstrated body language indicating discomfort at the situation. Somewhat related to this study and really interesting from a psychological standpoint.

  18. brendan

    Great article! Look forward to reading the complete paper later today. Quick question: the title states Julian is 12, then the body suggests he’s in fact 14. Did the study take that long, or is there a typo?

  19. Buster

    Save versus death.

  20. de-vilish-sly

    Here are two additional ideas:

    (1) If the published picture of the Monster was at all representative of the actual pictures used, it looks like its eyes are not far from where human eyes would be. What if the eyes were on stalks (not uncommon with actual monsters), separated so far from the rest of the (presumably localized) head that one could distinguish gaze-fixation on an eye from fixation on the head?

    (2) Suppose there were emotional content in the image of the face, for example, a smile vs. a frown. Would that influence gaze fixation?

  21. LJ

    I didn’t use to look at peoples eyes, I always looked at peoples heads or entire faces and didn’t contact. But I got told I need to as it makes people friendlier to give eye contact and so now I do when I think about it.

  22. @Brendan – 12 when the study was done. 14 now. Yes, research takes a long time to publish.

    @de-vilish-sly – The beholder in the image isn’t one of the images used in the study. Pictures from the Monster Manual are under copyright, whereas that is a still from a game.

  23. dale

    In the animal world many times looking for eyes is mandatory for survival. In many cases the only time eye contact is made is when something is preying on something else (or an animal is being preyed upon.) Studying it from the idea that we are still functioning socially on cave man hardwire, immediately searching out friend from foe.

  24. That’s a pretty interesting research finding. I wonder what happens if there’s an item without eyes though. If eyes are what we search for by default, what if there aren’t any?

  25. There are so many things to love about this post, and this study, that I don’t even know where to start. Hats off to Levy for a brilliant idea, Kingstone for an open mind, Ed for a great post, and of course to the late Gary Gygax for making it all possible.

  26. Sounds like an interesting study. Also, it is always cool to have roleplay materials involved in academic endeavors.

  27. Jeanette

    @de-vilish-sly – They also used 36 different images according to the article. Even if they used one of the beholder, there were still 35 others. :)

  28. Christ

    I don’t know about the premise of entire study, whether it’s just where people look INITIALLY or if it’s where people look IN GENERAL, but when I am talking to people, I actually more often look a their mouths as they are forming their words. Just a random thought that matters very little/none in the scope of everything.

  29. Colin Kawaguchi

    Needed Correction:

    In the article it says above the second photo: (which he’s modelling in the photo above)
    This should say: (which he’s modelling in the photo below)

    The photo above is in fact a Beholder, and I am almost positive Julian Levy is not one.

  30. Saline Ivy

    I for one would like to know if the study used any creatures, such as butterflies, moths, etc. which have eyespots on them. We know it’s a common method of camouflage in nature, and we can probably assume it is used to scare/ward off predators which prefer to lurk in shadows/out of sight (I’m not going to try to sneak up on you if I think you saw me), but as for analyzing the neurological half of that equation I’m not sure any testing has been done to address this.

    I am keeping in mind three factors which I would suggest that researchers consider:
    1. This would go well beyond testing “things that convincingly appear to be eyes”, to “things that appear to be eyes at first glance but are obviously not with more exploration”.

    2. As an artist and an observer, I look at places first where there is more pronounced color/light contrast, and then as my eyes adjust to the lighting I can parse more complicated details. Recognizing the basic shapes of things is easier to do when there is a high level of contrast in general, and when the shapes of things are not obscured by cover/light bloom/color blindness/etc.

    3. Finally, I would wager that there is a difference in mindset between animals who are primarily concerned with tracking prey/avoiding predators, and domesticated animals who are raised and bred to have little concern for such things. I propose that this could skew the results of any testing (such as the above, since it is suspected at least some humans may be domesticated, while others of us are violent and predatory).

  31. John

    @Julian Another option is to test with subject whose eyes are like Marty Feldman; the eyes point in different directions. I have one eye that due to an operation drifted to the outside. I also have alternating vision; I focus out of one eye more than the other. The eye I’m focusing through is the one that points towards the person I’m looking at. I don’t do well with those tests that have a different image for each eye and you try to ‘put them together’.

    My wife noticed once that, at a party, a woman I was talking to was trying to make eye contact with me but couldn’t tell which eye was directed at her. She slowly swayed back and forth so that she could make contact with each eye in turn.

  32. Sara

    This is study an Ignoble waiting to happen. 😉

    Also very cool. Before I read the article, I decided to bet on face rather than eyes because I’m not someone who looks (at least consciously) at people’s eyes. I have to forced myself when it’s necessary in social situations.

    Once again, my brain is acting in ways I’m completely oblivious to.

  33. Rebecca

    This is wonderful research. I have aspergers and an eidetic memory, so when I am explaining my stories I can see my memories, (think the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). So I will look around in my memory, and Neuro-typical people always look around to try and figure out what the heck I am looking at. It’s really frustrating for both parties because the NT cannot visualize what I am explaining, but in my mind I can reach out and touch it. (Think when Forrest Gump tells his story from the bench and we then see what he sees in his mind on the screen).

    And kudos to Julian!

  34. Pete d.

    Very cool! And it makes me wonder how folks with varying degrees of face-blindness/prosopagnosia would behave. I don’t know enough about the condition to know if they’re capable of or inclined to follow a gaze, but a quick Google Scholar search for “prosopagnosia eyes” brought me to “Does Prosopagnosia Take the Eyes Out of Face Representations? Evidence for a Defect in Representing Diagnostic Facial Information following Brain Damage”:

    Though they only have a single non-control subject to go by, there does seem to be a bias away from the use of eyes for recognition in that subject. But I wonder if that bias affects gaze-following…

    Anyway, love the article and, of course, that first-author credit!


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