It is often said that our eyes are windows to our souls, but recent studies suggest that they may really give clues about the inner workings of our minds. A study conducted at Ohio State University reveals that a person’s eyes reflect the moment when they are struck with an epiphany.
Researchers at OSU studied 59 undergraduate volunteers as they played a computer game against an opponent they could not see. The participants were asked to select a number from 0 to 10 that were arranged in a circle on a screen in front of them. The opponent would also select a number and then the game generated a 90 percent average of the two numbers, called a “target number”. The player who was closest to the target number won the game.
A trick to always winning the game is to consistently choose the smaller number because the average of two numbers is equally close to both numbers and 90 percent of an average will always be closer to the smaller number. In this case, if the player chose 0 each time, they would always win.
Each participant played 30 times in a row and an eye-tracker analyzed which numbers they looked at while considering their choice. During the round, the player would choose a number and then be asked if they would like to commit to that number for the remainder of the game. If they chose to stick with their choice, it was a signal to researchers that they had figured out how to win.
After each round, the participants were told which number their opponent chose, the target number, whether they won, lost or tied and if they had won a monetary prize. After several rounds, 42 percent of players realized the way they could win and committed to playing the number zero.
The ones who experienced the epiphany during the game showed significant pupil dilation just before committing to zero. After making their decision, their pupils returned to normal, suggesting that the dilation is indicative of a sudden realization, rather than a gradual understanding.
Ian Krajbich, a neuroeconomist and assistant professor at OSU, explained that the players didn’t spend any additional time looking at the commit button before their “aha” moment. This supports the idea that the participants experienced an epiphany.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that studying eye movements and pupil dilation can help predict an epiphany before it happens. Krajbich and his team plan to study epiphany learning further in coming years.
Top photo by randychiu, CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.