I read somewhere years ago that it’s virtually impossible to ignore an advert or design with a face, or more precisely eyes, on it and this seems to be very much the case – we just can’t help but try and make eye contact even if it is only symbolic. Our mind gets important information for face recognition primarily from the eye area and secondly from the mouth and nose so to seek out the eyes, even in a printed advert, is quite natural.

There’s a fascinating service available from 3M, the Visual Attention Service which predicts the visual impact of designs, ads etc in the first few seconds of observation. I have been having some fun playing around with it  – pop a design with a face into that and just watch the hot spots and attention areas light up!

We are great at seeing faces everywhere and anywhere from in the clouds to burned onto slices of toast but if it’s alive or not is another matter and it seems to be that the eyes really are the window of the soul – or rather of the life and soul.

A study published in Psychological Science found that a face has to be very close to a human face in order to appear alive and that the eyes are the key to that life. (Which may account for why some computer animations seem really freaky – or is that just me?)

Researchers at Dartmouth College, asked volunteers to study images on a continuum from the face of a doll, merged in stages, through to a similar human face. It was well towards the human end of the spectrum, about two-thirds of the way along, before the respondents thought the face was real. And in another experiment the researchers found that it was the eyes that were the most important feature for figuring that out.

“I think we all seek connections with others,” said Thalia Wheatley who wrote the study with Christine Looser. “When we recognize life in a face, she says, we think, “This is a mind I can connect with.”

Maybe this seeking connection is why we are so drawn to look at eyes and why we find them such an important and impactful feature.

A baby’s eyes are very large in comparison with its head, so large eyes suggest to us infant characteristics and that will induce in us feelings of nurturing and protection – hence large eyes seem so attractive.  Because of that proportional relationship big eyes also suggest youth  –  someone with big eyes is seen as younger then they really are. (I always make eyes larger in portraits!)

They don’t even have to be human to work their magic – just think of all those big eyed baby animals which make us go “ahhhhh” and that’s also the appeal of “Manga” style cartoon characters our kids seem to crave more and more of. Even products can exhibit this appeal, most of us think of the VW Beetle with it’s big headlights as cute.

Even though we may look to the eyes to find life, it seems that they don’t have to be real for us to feel the impact of being watched. Amazingly we are still influenced by the idea that someone is looking at what we’re up to even when there is no one actually there – we really are such a paranoid bunch!

Last year, Researchers at Newcastle University published the findings of a study where they had alternated putting up posters of staring eyes and of flowers on the walls of a cafe. They then watched the frequency of people clearing up after their meals. When the posters with the eyes were put up twice as many people tidied up, compared with when the flowers were on the walls.

Back in 2006 the same scientists looked at the impact of images of eyes on contributions to an honesty box in a tea room. They found that people put nearly three times more money in the box when there were eyes compared with the flowers.

Dr Bateson, who led the research, said “We care what other people think about us, and hence we behave better when we feel we are being observed.”

Seems that the Ancient Egyptians did know a thing or two and were on to something with the Eye of Horos, the all seeing eye as a symbol of protection!

What Makes a Face Look Alive? Study Says It’s in the Eyes
Newcastle University – Eye see you
Eye of Horos Image