People occasionally break eye contact during conversations because searching for the right words to say while focusing on a person's face becomes too much for the brain to handle, according to a recent cognitive study.
The traditional view holds that people break their eye contact for emotional reasons such as feeling uncomfortable or nervous. However, the new study reveals that there is a neurological reason for the action.
Reporting in the journal Cognition, which publishes theoretical and experimental papers on the study of the mind, two researchers from Kyoto University in Japan write that eye contact "disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation."
In other words, our brain can't find the right words and focus on a person's face at the same time because the two process will compete for brain resources, so we shift our gaze to retrieve and select words.
"Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation. This suggest that there is interference between these processes," the researchers explained.
They hypothesized that such interference occurs because both processes share the same cognitive resources.
To test this, they instructed 26 participants to view a person's face displayed on a screen while performing a verbal task, according to science magazine Scientific American.
The study concluded that eye contact shares domain-general cognitive resources with verb generation and that "a full understanding of functional and dysfunctional communication must consider the interaction and interference of verbal and non-verbal channels."