Giovanni Caputo, a psychologist at the University of Urbino in Italy, has found that staring in someone’s eyes in low light for about 10 minutes can induce altered state of consciousness in which otherwise healthy people experience dissociative symptoms, hallucinate, and see distorted faces and monsters.
They were divided into two groups of 10 each and asked to sit in pairs, facing each other about one meter (three feet) apart. They were then told to stare into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes.
Although the room was dimly lit, it was bright enough for the participants to see the facial features of their partners, although color perception was hampered.
A control group of 20 volunteers was also asked to sit in a dimly lit room and stare at a blank white wall for 10 minutes.
Both groups were not aware of the reason for the experiment. They were made to believe that the experiment was part of a study about “meditative experience with eyes open.”
After 10 minutes of the “meditative experience with eyes open,” they were asked to fill questionnaires about what they saw and experienced at every stage of the experiment and after.
The first questionnaire tried to gauge the intensity of the dissociative symptoms the participants experienced, such as reduced color and sound perception, altered consciousness of time, and altered states of awareness, such as “losing connection with reality,” feeling detached from the immediate environment, sense of unreality, “out of body” experiences, and memory loss.
The second questionnaire tried to measure the intensity of “strange-face” perceptions.
Caputo found that a significantly higher proportion of the participants in the eye-staring group reported experiencing altered states of consciousness and hallucinations.
About 90 percent of the participants in the eye-staring group said they saw deformed human faces ( face dysmorphia).
About 75 per cent said they saw monsters, while approximately 50 percent reported seeing their own face or the face of their experiment partner. About 15 percent said they saw a relative’s face.
Many of the volunteers in the eye-staring group also reported dissociative symptoms, such as altered color and sound perception, altered awareness of time, and hallucinations of monsters.
“The participants in the eye-staring group said they’d had a compelling experience unlike anything they’d felt before.”
“On the dissociative states test, they gave the strongest ratings to items related to reduced color intensity, sounds seeming quieter or louder than expected, becoming spaced out, and time seeming to drag on.”
“On the strange-face questionnaire, 90 percent of the eye-staring group agreed that they’d seen some deformed facial traits, 75 percent said they’d seen a monster, 50 percent said they saw aspects of their own face in their partner’s face, and 15 percent said they’d seen a relative’s face.”
According to Caputo, in the paper published in the journal of Psychiatry Research, the study demonstrated that hallucinatory experiences and dissociative symptoms can be induced in normal and healthy people without use of drugs.
“These results indicate that dissociative symptoms and hallucinatory phenomena during interpersonal-gazing under low illumination can involve different processes.”
He noted that some people experienced “strange face” hallucinations after 10 minutes of staring, during what he termed “rebound to reality.”
He suggested that staring into someone’s eyes led to sensory deprivation and that sensory deprivation made participants susceptible to altered states of consciousness experiences.
Other experts suggested that the phenomenon was due to what is termed “neural adaptation,” which describes a situation in which brain neurons have lowered or damped response after prolonged exposure to unchanging stimuli.
Neural adaptation is comparable to the effect produced when you stare at something for a long time and experience fading vision which can be renewed by blinking.
A 2010 study by Caputo, which involved volunteers staring at themselves in a mirror for 10 minutes, yielded similar results.
When people were asked to stare at themselves in a mirror, participants reported seeing “strange faces” after only one minute and most participants reported dissociative states or feelings of “otherness.”
Participants also reported seeing monsters, deformed faces, and other people they had known.
However, Caputo noted that the eye-staring experiment produced stronger altered consciousness state effects than the mirror-staring experiment.