Mind & Body

You Can Enter an Altered State of Consciousness By Staring Into Someone's Eyes for 10 Minutes

It's a weird feeling, but sometimes even the most mundane moments can strike you as foreign. Ever hear a word enough times that it stops making sense? Ever hear your voice on a recording and have a disgusted reaction? Apparently, staring into someone's eyes is another common activity that can yield an incredibly freaky result.

Are You Out of Your Mind?!

Drugs, meditation, and near-death experiences have all been described as producing an out-of-body sensation (we only suggest trying one of those three, for the record). Staring into another person's eyes, according to a 2015 study, might just be another. By asking volunteers to sit and stare into each other's eyes for a long period of time, Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo from the University of Urbino concluded that "eye-staring" is a real way to induce an altered state of consciousness, drug-free.

For the study, Caputo asked 20 young adults (mostly women) to stare into a stranger's eyes for 10 straight minutes in a dimly lit room. The lucky control group was told to sit in a chair and stare at a blank white wall for 10 minutes, knowing only that the study they were participating in related to a "meditative experience with eyes open." After the 10 minutes were up, the participants were asked to fill out two questionnaires, one about any sensory distortions or out-of-body feelings they may have experienced, and the other about what they perceived in their partner's face (eye-staring group) or their own face (control).

Ahhh! Not-Real Monsters

The results? Pretty surprising. The eye-starers said they'd had "a compelling experience unlike anything they'd felt before." That's no overstatement, either. The eye-starers scored higher on every aspect of both questionnaires, suggesting there's something profound about staring into someone else's eyes. The eye-starers reported that colors seemed less intense, sounds seemed quieter or louder than expected, and time seemed to move more slowly than usual, and that they just felt spaced out in general. On the weirder side, 90 percent of the participants in this group said they'd seen some deformed facial traits, 75 percent said they'd seen a monster, 50 percent said they saw hints of their own face in their partner's face, and 15 percent said they'd seen a relative's face. Remember, there were no drugs involved — these volunteers were getting high on eyes.

The Catcher in the Eye

It's (probably) not that our brains can't handle looking at eyeballs. This weird outcome is likely the result of something called neural adaptation: "the mechanism by which neurons decrease or stop their response to unchanging stimulation," Scientific American explains. This weirdness happened previously in a 2010 study where people stared at themselves in the mirror for a length of time. However, the results weren't as extreme as the eye-starers in the 2015 study. Maybe the eyes have it after all.

Want to see more? Check out Oliver Sacks's national bestseller "Hallucinations." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto July 3, 2018

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