Friday Weird Science: Monsters are people too.

Dec 07 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

I'm going to start with an upfront declaration. This paper is awesome for three major reasons:

1. It is interesting science.
2. It utilizes Dungeons and Dragons.
3. The first author is in middle school.

Yes. That last bit is correct. He's 14, and he just might be better published than you (he is, perhaps, better published than me. Ouch). I know that Ed already covered this paper (he always gets to the best stuff first), but I just really wanted to cover it myself. In my own way. Mostly so I could read it and look at the monsters.

Because HERE BE MONSTERS.


(Figure 1A. Why are my figures not so awesome?!)

Levy et al. "Monsters are people too". Biology Letters, 2012.

"The fool looks at the hand that points at the sky" - Amelie

We all know this trick: someone stands in the middle of the room, staring fixedly at something above them. Pretty soon, you'll get other people standing there staring at the ceiling, trying really hard to figure out WTF he's looking at.

This is because primates (and goats, dogs, dolphins, seals, and some birds) are very good at gaze following. Following another animal's gaze is an important social signal, sure, but when we follow gaze...what exactly are we following? Are we following the eyes or the person? Or are we following the direction and cues of the face, which, you know...has eyes in it?

This has always been a particularly difficult issue to solve because you can't exactly take the eyes away from the face. Even if you DO construct a face with no eyes, there is a spot where people believe that eyes should be. So how do you differentiate gaze following between eyes and face?

The lead author of this study had the answer for his dad (the final author): use MONSTERS.

And what monsters? Well luckily for the authors, there are monsters aplenty to be had in the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game where players have characters that explore, um, dungeons, and fight, um dragons. Like you might expect. They also fight a myriad of other monsters...many of which do not have eyes where you would expect them to be. So Julian Levy proposed to his father (in one amazing father-son bonding activity) that they use the monster designs in the Monster Manual to dissociate eyes from faces.

Take the picture above. You have the humans (far left), with eyes in the predictable position. You have the humanoids (center) which are not human, but still have eyes where you would expect them. And then you have the monsters (far right), which have in other portions of their anatomy, like their hands, or their tails (or their butts. I hope that there is a D&D monster with eyes in its butt. Please someone tell me this exists). Examples like these allowed the authors to take eyes out of faces. You have faces with eyes, and then you have eyes independent from faces, and because the subjects are monsters, you aren't necessarily expecting a face with eyes, and so will not necessarily gravitate toward the facial area.

Using these mockups of humans, humanoids, and monsters, the authors took 22 students and tracked their gaze at they looked at the creatures for 5 seconds each, presented in random order.

What you can see here are the different eye tracking measures, with humans on the top, humanoids in the middle, and monsters on the bottom. You can see that when presented with a humanoid, people's eyes first move to the center of the image, and then move up to the creature's head. But when presented with a creature that had eyes elsewhere, their eyes tracked to the middle...and then went elsewhere. But they usually tracked toward the eyes, even if the eyes were in places like the hands or feet (or butt). So where they looked was different, but what they looked for was the same: they went for the whites of the eyes.

This suggests (though further testing say specifically with creatures with no heads vs heads) that when we go to process social information from another creature, we look to the eyes specifically, not to the face in general. It could be important for future studies of conditions like autism, where people have problems focusing on faces. But well, it's also monsters! And D&D. And SCIENCE. And one very smart 14 year old who could make the right connections.

Levy J, Foulsham T, & Kingstone A (2013). Monsters are people too. Biology letters, 9 (1) PMID: 23118434

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