12-year-old D&D fan helps out dad with research

A twelve-year-old boy is cited as an author on a paper that used Dungeons & Dragons characters to demonstrate that human beings are hard-wired to focus on eyes.

The findings, from the universities of British Columbia and Essex, rule out the possibility that the well-known human bias to look at eyes is in fact a bias simply to look at the middle of faces where the eyes happen to be.

The problem facing Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, was that human beings have their eyes in the middle of their faces, making it hard to carry out an experiment.

But his son, Julian Levy, now 14, had the idea of using images from the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, showing either people, ‘humanoids’ with eyes in the middle of their faces or ‘monsters’ with eyes positioned elsewhere.

The focus of 22 volunteers’ eyes were then tracked over their first ten ‘eye-fixations’ while being shown each of the 36 images.

The results show that humans look early and often at the eyes – even those of monsters. For all pictures, the participants looked to the centre of the image first. Second and subsequent fixations demonstrated a preferential bias to look at the eyes.

Fixations moved vertically up to the eyes of humans and humanoids – but, in sharp contrast, remained centralised for monsters, making it clear that the eyes are being selected, and not the head.

This bias allows observers to follow gaze, and indicates that the human brain may be specialized for social, behaviourally relevant information.

The paper – titled ‘Monsters are People Too’ – is published in Biology Letters.