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I'm not ignoring you; I'm thinking

September 5, 2006 By Lucy Heady This article courtesy of Nature News.

Gazing into the middle distance improves your concentration.

Teachers everywhere can be heard shouting "look at me when I'm talking to you". But research presented today at the British Association's Festival of Science in Norwich, UK, suggests that they should be doing exactly the opposite.

When posed with a conundrum, it is normal for adults and older children to look away, staring in an unfocused way out of the window or at a patch of the carpet. This aimless gaze isn't necessarily thanks to an attitude of indifference or indolence, but instead might be helping the brain to concentrate.

Researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland took a group of 25 five-year-olds and trained them to look away when they were being asked a question. The effect was a significant increase in correct answers to mental arithmetic questions, says Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, who led the research. She declined to give details as the work is in press with the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

Further experiments by the same group showed that the difficulty of both looking at a face and thinking about maths is so extreme it can cause a physiological response. In one study, around 30 adults were asked to perform a task requiring concentration, such as counting backwards from 100 in increments of 7, while staring at a human face. The combination of mental effort and emotional confusion caused the subjects to break out in a sweat. The sweatiest subjects, Doherty-Sneddon adds, were men being tested by a female researcher.

We are so distracted by the barrage of emotional information transmitted in faces that it stops us from thinking clearly, Doherty-Sneddon says.

So does this mean that teachers should be encouraging their students to look away from them? Doherty-Sneddon certainly thinks so. "I do this with my own kids while they're doing their homework" she says. "If they're looking at me then I know they're not concentrating."

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