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Scientist’s son uses Dungeons & Dragons as a research tool

Here’s a heart-warming story about a 12-year-old boy making a difference in scientific research. Julian Levy, the son of University of British Columbia psychologist Alan Kingstone, PhD, proposed his father use the Monster Manual from the fantasy role-playing Dungeons and Dragons in a study on tracking gaze-copying behavior. The manual, which includes a diverse range of creatures, allowed Kingstone to overcome an important roadblock in his research.

This isn’t just an academic exercise … It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

Kingstone was investigating two potential explanations for gaze-copying behavior: we are naturally drawn to people’s eyes and will look in the direction others are looking or we focus broadly on faces and the eyes happen to be in the middle. The problem was he couldn’t test the theories since all humans have eyes in the middle of their faces. But then Levy suggested using monsters inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and two years later the father-s0n team published their findings in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. As reported in a recent post on Discover’s Not Exactly Rocket Science blog:

Levy asked 22 volunteers to stare at the corner of a screen, press a key to bring up one of 36 monster images, and let their eyes roam free. All the while, he tracked their eye movements with a camera.

The recordings showed that when volunteers looked at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with more or less human shapes), their eyes moved to the centre of the screen, and then straight up. If the volunteers saw monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the centre, and then off in various directions. The volunteers looked at eyes early and frequently, whether they were on the creatures’ faces or not.

This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. But if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.

Previously: Researcher shows how preschoolers are, quite literally, little scientists, No, really, the kid *should* see this, Stanford’s RISE program gives high-schoolers a scientific boost and A proposal to combat “science alienation”

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