It's the setup you dread hearing from any comedian: Men and women are just different.
It wouldn't be a cliche of bad humor if it weren't unpinned by some truth, and new research has shown that, when it comes to visual cues, men and women really do see the world differently.
More specifically, they see faces differently. Since looking at other people's faces is a pretty important part of human interaction (and, you know, life), this means that what women perceive, men may not, and vice versa.
Men and women really are different... at eye contact
Researchers used an eye-tracking device to monitor the optical movements of 500 participants as they looked at a face on a computer screen. The goal was to see how each person responded to eye contact, and it turns out women spend much more time focusing on other people's faces than men, which makes sense because... OK, we'll spare you that part of the comedy act.
The reality is stranger, and less sexually suggestive, than you might expect: Women tended to look more at the left side of the face.
These habits became such a consistent pattern that researchers could predict the gender of someone based on their eye movements with 80% accuracy. And with a pool of 500 participants, that's not a coincidence.
"Gender-based brain differences must be taken very carefully, as it is difficult to know whether they are innate or shaped by the society," said lead study author Antoine Coutrot, PhD. "However, some differences have been established, for instance in hemispheric dominance during a variety of tasks such as face processing (e.g., women are better at lip reading)."
What he's saying, basically, is that they know there are differences, but given how fraught gender norms can be, it's virtually impossible to say whether women and men are born with different ways of perceiving faces, or they're conditioned by society to perceive faces differently.
But one thing's certain: Women read lips better.
Can eye movements help detect disease?
The study wasn't just helpful in identifying yet another difference between males and females; it may be useful in treating disorders.
"Eye movements can be used to infer many characteristics of the observers, like their cognitive workload (particularly useful during demanding tasks such as air traffic control), the task at hand, or here, their gender," Dr. Coutrot added.
"Another very promising line of studies is gaze-based disease screening. Some disorders, like dementia or autism, lead to quantifiable alterations of eye movement behavior. Hence, gaze can be used as an objective, inexpensive, and rapid tool for disease screening," he added. "In many cases (particularly where patients/young infants cannot talk), this has the added advantage of bypassing verbal report."
Gaze-Based Disease Screening isn't just the name of a chillwave band poised to break out and become national stars; it's likely going to help humanity get healthier in the future, and research like this can help advance it -- if you know that males and females track vision differently, you have a better baseline to compare against when assessing for possible disease.
And while it's unclear if men and women really act so differently in relationships, there are true gender differences in how people look at each other. Whether or not a lack of eye contact (looking at you, men) is a biological factor or social construct is another story.
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