Lifestyle Solutions for a Happy Healthy You!

How Eye Contact Affects Our Brains

 

Did you ever play the Eye Contact Game as a kid? You’re supposed to  sit  directly across from another person and stare into his or her eyes  for as long  as possible while keeping a straight face. I don’t think I  won a single game;  every attempt would end in a fit of nervous giggles.  And as an adult, I feel  even weirder locking eyes with someone for too  long. There’s just something  about prolonged eye contact that makes you  feel vulnerable and exposed, as if  the person looking into your eyes has  access to your inner thoughts and  feelings. A loved one’s lingering  look can trigger a rush of happiness, but too  much eye contact with an  acquaintance or a stranger can bring on sudden  discomfort. How, exactly,  does eye contact affect us, anyway?

The Look of Love That old adage about eyes being the  window to our inner selves  isn’t far from the truth. We can feign a frown or a  smile, but it’s harder to fake expressions from the nose up. A true  smile will produce crow’s feet, and someone  who’s angry will narrow his eyes a  bit, according to body-language  experts. We learn a lot by looking into another  person’s eyes, a  behavior that’s ingrained in us from the start. As babies, we  use  adults’ gazes to figure out what’s worth our attention. In a 2002 study   published in Developmental Psychology, researchers found that  infants  followed people’s eye direction, rather than head direction. Eye  contact also  helps our younger selves with memory recall. Researchers  at MIT discovered that  four-month-olds were more likely to recognize  someone later if he or she made  direct eye contact.

Over time, we learn the difference between eye contact that makes our hearts flutter and eye contact  that makes us cringe internally. Oxytocin, also known  as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, plays a big part in that. It’s a  feel-good chemical that’s released  when we feel bonded with someone,  either emotionally or physically. The release is prompted by a warm hug, holding hands,  falling in love, and so forth. A recent article in Biological  Psychiatry postulated that oxytocin’s the reason we’re so inclined to make   prolonged eye contact with our loved ones. And Dr. Kerstin Uväs-Moberg,  the  author of The Oxytocin Factor, believes that eye contact can  bring  about oxytocin release as well. Perhaps that’s why gazing into the  eyes of  someone you don’t feel emotionally close with can feel so  wrong—the oxytocin  might be there, but it’s not for the right reasons.  It’s also why eye contact  is deemed so essential for couples trying to  reconnect. Looking deeply into  each other’s eyes might rekindle  forgotten feelings.

A Simple Gaze Inspires Complex Behaviors Even if we don’t  appreciate meaningful glances from just anybody, we  do look favorably upon  those who look directly at us. Researchers at  the University of  Aberdeen asked  a group of people to look at two  pictures of faces that were almost  identical—the only difference was  that one face had eyes looking away and the  other’s eyes looked into the  camera, mimicking eye contact. Whether the  subjects smiled or looked  disgusted didn’t make much difference; instead, men  and women found the  faces making eye contact most attractive and likable.  According to the  journal Nature, the brain’s reward center is  activated when one  makes eye contact with a good-looking person. Not only do we  like  looking at attractive people, but it makes us feel even better when they   look our way.

Because eye contact is linked directly to our emotions, it has an  effect on  our behavior, too, as researchers at Tufts University proved.  Study  participants encountered a dime left in a phone booth and were  approached by a  random person claiming it as his or her own. When that  person made eye contact  with the participants, they were more likely to  give back the dime. Having  someone look directly at them made them more  honest, probably because their  inner thoughts—namely, “This dime isn’t  mine”—seemed exposed.

Direct gazes also prompt increased participation from people in groups  because it makes them feel more included. Dr.  Roel Vertegaal, an expert on eye  communication between humans, showed  that the amount of eye contact a person  received during a group  conversation was proportional to how much he or she  participated. Eye  contact also forces us to pay attention more: a 2005 joint  study by the  University of Wolverhampton and the University of Stirling found  that  viewers remembered what a speaker said better if he looked directly into   the camera at least 30 percent of the time.

This improved attention to detail shifts the other way if  someone’s expected  to answer a question while making eye contact with  someone else, as evidenced  by a University  of Stirling study. Kids  answered questions correctly only 50  percent of the time if they had to  look at someone while doing it; their scores  improved significantly when  they were allowed to avert their gazes. Eye contact  requires so much  mental work that it becomes difficult to think of much else in  the  process. It’s easy when our eyes are focusing on someone we trust and   love; we can concentrate solely on the adoration, instead of on keeping  up a  conversation. But most of us can’t even look into an acquaintance’s  eyes and  keep a straight face, let alone attempt complex problem  solving.

Use Eye Contact with Discretion Eye contact can help us  feel incredibly bonded or incredibly creeped  out, depending on the person in  view. It can make people more honest or  make them appear more attractive. It  has the power to enhance memory or  cause us to forget everything else but the  irises in front of us. Think of how many people we lock eyes with on a daily   basis, be it at the grocery store or during a conversation with a  coworker.  It’s a wonder we can get anything done!

Luckily, there’s a social difference between strangers and loved  ones when  it comes to eye contact time limits. A certain amount is  necessary for social  functioning (how weird is it when the person you’re  talking to refuses to look  you in the eyes?), but anything more than  that gets far too close for comfort.  Though we do it all the time, eye  contact is clearly one of the most intimate  behaviors we engage in. We  may look into people’s eyes throughout the day, but  we reserve the  prolonged kind of gazing for those we keep closest to our  hearts.

By Vicki Santillano, DivineCaroline

At DivineCaroline.com, women  come together to learn from experts in the fields, of health, sustainability,  and culture; to reflect on shared experiences; and to express themselves by  writing and publishing stories about anything that matters to them. Here, real  women publish like real pros. Together, with our staff writers, they’re  discussing all facets of women’s lives from relationships and careers, to travel  and healthy living. So come discover, read, learn, laugh and connect at DivineCaroline.com.

 

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