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Ten minutes of eye contact leads to hallucinations, monster sightings

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. A recent study says staring through those windows a little too long can lead to some strange sightings.

© Jonathan Knowles/Corbis

Have you ever known someone who stares into your eyes a little too long when you're having a conversation? Strange, right? Well it can get even stranger, according to research published this summer in the journal Psychiatry Research.

Giovanni Caputo, a vision scientist from the University of Urbino in Italy, worked with two groups of young adults, each consisting of 20 people. Both groups were placed in dimly lit rooms. One group stared at a blank wall for 10 minutes, the other was paired off and asked to stare into each other's eyes for the same amount of time. Both groups were only told they were part of a study that was going to involve a "meditative experience with eyes open," according to a report Wednesday by Christian Jarrett in the British Psychological Society's journal, Research Digest.

After the 10 minutes ended, participants were asked to report on their experiences through a series of questions.

The people in the group who looked at each other reported experiencing more dissociation states than the wall-gazing group. Dissociation is "a rather vague psychological term for when people lose their normal connection with reality," Jarrett explains. In this case, the dissociation was expressed in "reduced color intensity, sounds seeming quieter or louder than expected, becoming spaced out, and time seeming to drag on."

The answers got a lot more interesting though, when the study participants were asked to report on the experience of their partners' faces.

"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," Jarrett said.

Caputo theorizes that the effect might have to do with what happens when we snap back to reality after zoning out.

"Strange-face apparitions may characterize the rebound to reality from a dissociative state induced by sensory deprivation," he writes in the study's abstract. "These phenomena may explain psychodynamic projections of the subject's unconscious meanings into the other's face." In other words, as we reenter reality, stuff that's normally hidden from our own view deep in our unconscious mind can get projected onto another person's face. Hello scary monster face.

Caupto also says, according to Jarrett, that this theory is speculative and that the study should be considered preliminary.

While Caputo has found in previous research that dissociative states can happen when subjects stare at dots on the wall or in a mirror for a prolonged period of time, he says the effects were more pronounced in the eye-to-eye experiments.

So be careful how long you hold someone's gaze -- you might just become truly mesmerized.