As the cheesy pickup line suggests, your eyes may really be the window to your soul. According to a new study by Yale University psychologists, most people intuitively feel as if their "self" — otherwise known as their soul, or ego — exists in or near their eyes.
In three experiments, the researchers probed preschoolers' and adults' intuitions about the precise location of the self in the body. The participants were shown pictures of cartoon characters, and in each picture a small object (a buzzing fly or snowflake) was positioned near a different section of the character's body (face or torso or feet, etc.), always at the same distance away.
The study participants were then asked which pictures showed the object closest to the body, the hypothesis being that people would interpret the object as closest when it was near what they intuitively believed to be the soul's location.
As reported earlier this month in the journal Cognition, the vast majority of the 4-year-olds and adults in the study thought the object was closest to the character when it was near the character's eyes. This was true even when the cartoon character was a green-skinned alien whose eyes were on its chest rather than in its head – suggesting that it was the eyes, rather than the brain, that seemed most closely tied to the soul.
According to lead researcher Christina Starmans of the Mind and Development Lab at Yale, she and study co-author Paul Bloom designed their experiment after a conversation in which they discussed intuitively feeling as if their consciousnesses were "located" near their eyes, and that objects seemed closest to them when near their eyes. "We set out to test whether this was a universally shared intuition," Starmans told Life's Little Mysteries.
As it turned out, it was — even among young children. [Take the test]
"The indirect nature of our method, and the fact that these judgments are shared by adults and preschoolers, suggests that our results do not reflect a culturally learned understanding … but might instead be rooted in a more intuitive or phenomenological sense of where in our bodies we reside," the authors concluded.
However, experts disagreed about the implications of the research. Neurologist Robert Burton, author of numerous books and articles on themind-body connection, thinks the results don't rule out the possibility that Westerners' sense that we exist in our eyes is culturally indoctrinated.
Burton, former chief of the division of neurology at University of California, San Francisco-Mount Zion Hospital, said the most interesting result of the study seems to have been brushed under the rug by the researchers: It is that the 4-year-olds and adults didn't actually give the same responses during the experiment with the alien cartoon character. Almost as many children thought the buzzing fly was closest to the alien when it was near his eyeless head than when it was near his eye-bearing chest. Meanwhile, the adults almost unanimously selected the chest-eyes. "This suggests that something has transpired during the time between age 4 and adulthood that affects our understanding of the identity of other people," Burton said.
In other words, it seems we learn to associate identity with eyes, rather than doing it innately from birth. Perhaps, for example, eyes take on more importance as we develop awareness of the social cues that other people convey with their eyes. Or, perhaps it's because adults have learned that it's good etiquette to make eye-contact.
Furthermore, the study participants may not have interpreted the idea of the buzzing fly and snowflake being "closer" to a cartoon characters as meaning that they were closer to its soul or self. Objects look bigger when they are nearer one's eyes, and this may have confused the participants into labeling them as "closer." [Gallery: The Most Amazing Optical Illusions]
Georg Northoff, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Ottawa, agrees that the authors' interpretation of their experimental results is "far-fetched." The issues with this particular study aside, Northoff said a large body of evidence suggests most people do have a sense of self that physically manifests itself in their bodies. "We always have the tendency to locate something and materialize it in the body as mind or as soul," he wrote in an email. "That seems to be predisposed by the way our brain works, though the mechanisms remain unclear."
It is also worth noting that the part of the brain in which self-awareness is thought to arise, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, happens to be located behind the eyes. It is possible, Burton said, that we may "feel" as if we are physically located near our eyes because our identity emerges in the neurons there.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.