What are you looking at?

Feb 02, 2009
Two lemurs looking the same way, demonstrating 'gaze-following' in action (photo: April Ruiz)

(PhysOrg.com) -- Why do we look when another person looks? Are we looking for objects of interest or perhaps a warning of impending danger? Or are we just plain nosey? Human tendency to follow another person's gaze - `gaze following' - can be traced back to man's most distant relatives, according to a new scientific report.

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have found evidence that the action is a primitive cognitive skill dating back to the time of the first primates.

Psychologists April Ruiz, Juan Carlos Gomez and Richard Byrne also believe they have solved the evolutionary paradox of why animals such as dogs can follow their master¿s gaze to find rewards, yet our closest relatives apparently can't.

Professor Byrne said, "Humans find it impossible not to look up when they see someone staring upwards at the sky, even when they know it might be a trick. We are not alone in this habit: it's been known for some years that several species of non-human primates, apes and monkeys, show the same tendency to follow gaze. But when their ability to use this to find useful information (for example, where food is hidden) has been tested, they generally failed."

Dr Gomez added, "The ability to track gaze makes excellent sense for a social animal like a primate, because it can give clues about foods to eat, predators to avoid, social scenarios to take note of and so on. Up to now, the abilities of non-human primates to interpret gaze have puzzled scientists - the paradox being, what is the point of gaze following if it isn't used for basic functions such as locating resources?"

The St Andrews team studied the lemur - a primate so distantly related to humans they look more like cats than monkeys - for clues. The new study reports what others have failed to find - that lemurs have the ability to intelligently respond to the gaze of another, by using it to find objects of interest.

"Because we have found this ability, once thought unique to humans, in lemurs, we can push back the date of its original evolution far beyond the last common ancestor we share with apes, or even with monkeys, back to the time of the first primates," commented April Ruiz.

The St Andrews' team worked alongside Jean Jacques Roeder at the Centre de Primatologie de l'Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg. The researchers carried out a combined study of the two elements, `gaze and search' - something that had surprisingly not been done before. They found that whenever a lemur looked at a location signalled by gaze, it was most likely to choose that location to search for food. In contrast to previous tests with primates, the lemurs were able to use gaze to increase their chance of finding food.

The researchers stress that they are not claiming human-like mental abilities in lemurs. "We call the process gaze priming," explained Professor Byrne. "Following another's gaze draws an animal's attention to a place, and if it is the sort of place where food is found, then the animal will be more likely to search there; if it was the sort of place danger lurks, the animal could choose to do the opposite and keep away from it."

Dr Gomez added, "To benefit from gaze priming the animal doesn¿t need to understand anything about the minds of those whose gaze it follows. Our own, human understanding of attention is built on these simple but useful foundations. Humans have evolved to more complex gaze following, resulting in more flexible behavioural responses."

"Our study helps us understand how we might interpret the gaze of another, concluded April Ruiz. When you're gossiping about someone, and your partner suddenly stares over your shoulder...could it be the topic of your gossip has just appeared? You are walking in the hills and notice your friends are all looking one way. Have they seen an escaped puma? Or just approaching rain? The point is that gazing may not be intended to help anyone - but it does, because we can read it and follow the direction, whatever it is aimed at."

The results of the study are published in the journal Animal Cognition, ref DOI 00.1007/s10071-008-0202-z

Provided by University of St Andrews

Explore further: Gene removal could have implications beyond plant science

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ants in space

Feb 06, 2014

When NC State postdoc Clint Penick collected a group of pavement ants in a small mountain community in Western North Carolina last summer, he never dreamed they'd travel farther than his biology lab in Raleigh. ...

Dogs' behavior could help to design social robots

Sep 12, 2013

Designers of social robots, take note. Bring your dog to the lab next time you test a prototype, and watch how your pet interacts with it. You might just learn a thing or two that could help you fine-tune ...

New research reveals how elephants 'see' the world

Apr 19, 2013

Think Elephants International, a not-for-profit organization that strives to promote elephant conservation through scientific research, education programming and international collaborations, today announced ...

Recommended for you

Gene removal could have implications beyond plant science

8 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —For thousands of years humans have been tinkering with plant genetics, even when they didn't realize that is what they were doing, in an effort to make stronger, healthier crops that endured climates better, ...

Lemurs match scent of a friend to sound of her voice

12 hours ago

Humans aren't alone in their ability to match a voice to a face—animals such as dogs, horses, crows and monkeys are able to recognize familiar individuals this way too, a growing body of research shows.

Chrono, the last piece of the circadian clock puzzle?

14 hours ago

All organisms, from mammals to fungi, have daily cycles controlled by a tightly regulated internal clock, called the circadian clock. The whole-body circadian clock, influenced by the exposure to light, dictates the wake-sleep ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...