What are you looking at?

February 2, 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: Insects can see the world in much finer resolution than previously thought

Related Stories

Dogs are able to follow human gaze

June 12, 2015

Dogs are known to be excellent readers of human body language in multiple situations. Surprisingly, however, scientists have so far found that dogs do not follow human gaze into distant space. Scientists at the Messerli Research ...

Wolves are able to follow a human's gaze

February 23, 2011

Following others' gaze direction is an important source of information that helps to detect prey or predators, to notice important social events within one's social group and to predict the next actions of others. As such, ...

Recommended for you

New quasar discovered by astronomers

September 19, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of astronomers led by Jacob M. Robertson of the Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee has detected a new quasi-stellar object (QSO). They found the new quasar, designated SDSS J022155.26-064916.6, ...

Political polarization? Don't blame the web, study says

September 19, 2017

Despite the popular narrative that the web is to blame for rising political polarization, a study by a Brown University economist has found that recent growth in polarization is greatest for demographic groups in which individuals ...

Nonlinear physics bridges thoughts to sounds in birdsong

September 19, 2017

The beautiful sound of birdsongs emerging from the trees is a wonderful example of how much nature can still teach us, even as much about their origins are still mysterious to us. About 40 percent of bird species learn to ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.