I’m sure you’ve ever been in a noisy, crowded room and found yourself looking into each other’s eyes with someone else. It’s almost like a movie scene: the rest of the world fades to gray, while you and that other person are momentarily connected.
Yes, it’s true: eye contact isn’t always so exciting. In the end, it’s a natural part of most conversations, but it’s almost always important.
We make assumptions about people’s personality based on how long they look us in the eye or look away when we talk to them. And when we come across strangers on the street or in some other public place, we may feel rejected if they don’t make eye contact with us.
Although we already know this from our daily experiences, psychologists and neuroscientists have studied eye contact for decades. And its intriguing findings reveal much more about the power it has. For example, what our eyes count and how eye contact changes what we think about the person looking at us.
A recurrent finding is that the eyes that look at us attract and retain our attention, making us less aware of what is happening around us (which “turns gray,” as we mentioned earlier).
In addition, holding someone’s gaze involves a series of brain processes, as we realize that we are relating to that person’s mind. Consequently, it makes us more aware of the existence of the other person, that he has a mind and a perspective of his own, which, in turn, makes us more aware of ourselves.
You may have noticed these effects with special intensity if you’ve ever stood the gaze of a monkey or ape in a zoo: it’s almost impossible not to surrender to the feeling that they’re conscious beings who judge and examine you.
In fact, it has been shown that even looking at a portrait that seems to be looking at us activates a fringe of brain activity related to social cognition, that is, thinking about ourselves and other people.
It is not surprising that it distracts us too much to realize that we are the object of another mind.
Look at a recent study by Japanese researchers. Volunteers had to watch a video in which a face appeared while they completed a word game in which verbs had to be associated with names. For example, if they heard the word ‘milk’, an appropriate answer would be ‘drink’.
Well, the volunteers had much more difficulty with wordplay (in the more complicated names) when the face of the video seemed to make eye contact with them.
Researchers believe this effect occurs because eye contact, even with a stranger in a video, is so intense that it depletes our cognitive reserves.
Similar research revealed that looking a person in the eye also interferes with working memory (the ability to maintain and use the information we have in mind for short periods of time), imagination, and mind control.
You may have inadvertently interrupted eye contact with another person to better concentrate on what they are saying or thinking. Some psychologists even recommend looking the other way as a strategy to help young children answer questions.
In addition to socially saturating our brains, research also shows that eye contact shapes our perception of the person looking at us.
For example, we generally perceive that people with a greater tendency to make eye contact are more intelligent, more aware and sincere (at least in Western cultures), and we are more likely to believe what they say.
A special moment?
It is also true that too much eye contact can make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, people who stare for a long time may seem spooky.
In a recent study at a science museum, a group of psychologists tried to determine the ideal duration of eye contact. They concluded that, on average, it is three seconds. And no one in the study opted for a look of more than nine seconds.
Another of the effects of eye contact can help explain why that precise moment when we look at another person in a room can sometimes be so absorbing.
A recent study revealed that this look leads to a sort of partial fusion between the self and the other: we qualify the strangers with whom we have established eye contact as more similar to us, in terms of personality and appearance.
Perhaps, in the right context, when everyone else is busy talking, this effect adds to the feeling that you and that person are sharing a special moment.
The chemistry of eye contact doesn’t end there. If you decide to get closer, you will realize that eye contact also links you in a different way. This is a process known as “pupil mimicry” or “pupil contagion,” in which your pupils and the other person’s pupils dilate and contract in synchrony.
This is interpreted as a form of subconscious social mimicry, a kind of eye dance, and is perceived as a romantic gesture.
But recently there was some skepticism about this phenomenon, and some researchers claim that it is simply a response to variations in the brightness of the other person’s eyes (up close, the fact that the other person’s pupils dilate increases the darkness of the scene, which causes our pupils to dilate as well).
This is not to say that pupil dilation has no psychological significance. In fact, at least until the 1960s, psychologists studied how our pupils dilate when we are most excited or stimulated (in a physiological sense), whether for intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, or sexual interest.
This led to a debate as to whether we perceive that faces with more dilated pupils (sometimes understood as a sign of sexual interest) are more attractive. At least some studies, some decades old and others more recent, suggest that they are.
Be that as it may, centuries before this research, popular wisdom already considered dilated pupils to be attractive. At various times in history, women even used a plant extract to deliberately dilate their pupils as a way of making themselves more attractive (hence the colloquial name of the plant: “belladonna”).
But when we look another person deeply in the eye, it’s not just the pupils that send messages.
Other recent research suggests that we can read complex emotions in the eye muscles, depending on whether a person is pursing or opening their eyes. So, for example, when an emotion like repulsion squints our eyes, this “ocular expression” also indicates our repulsion of others.
Another important characteristic of the eyes are the limbar rings, i.e. the dark circles surrounding the iris. Recent research suggests that these limbars are more visible in younger, healthier people, and that people who look at them somehow know it.
All these studies suggest that there is much truth in the old saying that the eyes are the window of the soul. In fact, there is something incredibly powerful about looking deeply into another person’s eyes. They say that the eyes are the only part of our brain that is directly exposed to the world.
When you look another person in the eye, think: perhaps it is the closest you are to “touching the brains,” or the souls, if you prefer to be more poetic about these things.
Given this intense intimacy, it may not be surprising that if you dim the lights and keep looking at another person for 10 minutes without stopping, you will see strange things happening, stranger than you have ever experienced.