When elementary school children are given verbal reasoning or arithmetic tasks by an examiner, they look away the more the problems get difficult. Added instructions to "Look at me" resulted in poorer performances. In fact, looking at when gaze aversion could occur provided a fairly reliable indicator that children were "ready to learn" - some answers were correct...but not all, so it could be used by teachers to see when their students were at the right challenge level (not too easy, not too hard). Other interesting findings from the research group at Stirling, gaze aversion could be trained (some children did not know to do this - and when trained, it helped their performance answering questions) and the onset of gaze aversion as a strategy for thinking tended to arise at about the age of 5 years. When surveyed, teachers did not know that gaze aversion was associated with a student's good effort at thinking and comprehending.
The idea is that kids (and adults too) look away in order to control "cognitive load". Looking away decreases attention to extraneous environmental input so that working memory and higher cortical functions can be addressed to the task at hand. Cognitive performance was best when kids were looking away, poorer when kids looked at a stationary visual stimulus, poorer still when looking at a moving visual stimulus, and the poorest of all looking at an examiner.
In the table above, investigators found that gaze aversion was also helpful when college students had to performa a cognitive task that required visual spatial imagery or imagination. When selecting a path through a 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional matrix, eye contact caused performance to deteriorate while gaze aversion resulted in the best scores of all. At left, Einstein gaze averting (a.k.a thinking).
The latest additions to gaze aversion research should be very helpful for parents and teachers working with kids. Gaze aversion is well known among children with autism spectrum disorders, but also quite commonly seen among dyslexics of all ages and really any one trying to really think hard.
Gaze Aversion Research
Gaze aversion on visual-spatial imagination pdf