A BRIEF GAZE AT THE NEUROSCIENCE OF EYE GAZE
The eyes are the window to your soul.
The eye has been frequently referred to as an opening, a portal into our souls. Making eye contact is a fundamental tool in establishing rapport between humans and some other animal species. It’s needed for all types of connections – social, romantic and professional.
Surely there are cultural differences regarding how eye contact is perceived.
For example, a study comparing Finnish and Japanese cultures, have found that when making direct eye contact, Eastern Asians perceive faces to be much more unpleasant, unapproachable and angrier than West European subjects do. Past research has nonetheless established that faces making eye contact are perceived quicker and more positively, which is termed “the eye contact effect”.
Beginning from infancy we learn that eyeing behaviors of others bear important information. Research has shown that from birth on, humans prefer to look at faces that engage in reciprocated gaze, and that healthy babies show enhanced neural processing of direct eye gaze.
What happens in our brains when we make eye contact?
What neural substrates, hormonal and behavioral aspects are involved?
I set out to find some answers to these questions in this post.
Eye contact, an indication of non-verbal dialogue between humans, can give us an appreciation of being recognized, a sense of intimacy, and can enhance strong empathetic feelings in us. Conversely, it can also make us feel threatened or distraught. While direct gaze can be a sign of interest, it can also indicate supremacy or threat, whereas cutting off or averting gaze could suggest shyness or appeasement. Closing eyes while speaking can suggest that the person is bored, or that they feel superior because they do not give the opportunity to the audience to give and to receive feedback. But we also avert our gaze when we try to concentrate on answering a difficult question. Our pupils dilate when we are sexually excited, when we see someone or something we love, but also when we feel rage.
Prolonged eye contact can make us feel exposed and vulnerable, giving the feeling our thoughts could be read or heard by the other. There is so much information about the inner state of a person that can be gathered merely by looking at their eye area. This information is particularly valuable since it is hard to fake these micro-expressions from the nose up. Our eyes give us away easily most of the time.
“The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”
A study with healthy neurotypical adults investigated whether constraining participants’ attention to the eyes of dynamic emotional faces would enhance their brain response in the regions involved in perceiving social signals. They found that activity in social brain regions is enhanced for all emotions when attention is constrained to the eye region.
Unsurprisingly, eye contact is closely linked to our emotions and consequently affects our behaviors. This link becomes particularly clear when looking at psychiatric conditions: People who have autism spectrum disorders, and individuals suffering from schizophrenia have trouble making and maintaining eye contact. Therefore they lack the ability to give and to receive principal social clues from our environment, which makes it difficult for them to infer what other people are feeling and to communicate their emotions accordingly.
Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” is a hormone that is involved in sexual and social, physical and emotional bonding, and reproduction and maternal care.
A recent study revealed that oxytocin administration to adults with Asperger Syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism, which is now a defunct diagnosis and termed simply as Autism Spectrum Disorder) facilitates social information processing. All subjects showed improvements in affective speech comprehension and in assigning emotional significance to speech intonation under oxytocin.
Another recent experiment garnered a lot of attention for demonstrating results that show a single dose of intranasal oxytocin administration enhanced eye gaze duration in real-time interactions with a researcher, in both healthy subjects and subjects with autism.
Although it can’t be presumed based on these results that clinical oxytocin administration has long-lasting or remedial effects for individuals with autism, these studies point further research into a very important direction. Discerning the potential benefits of oxytocin for use in therapy in autism spectrum disorders could aid an estimate of 1 in 160 around the world.
Going forward with oxytocin and eye contact, a study from Japan has shown that gazing behavior from dogs increased urinary oxytocin concentrations in their owners. Consequently this facilitated owners’ relationship and increased oxytocin concentration in dogs. Furthermore, the researchers have also used nasal oxytocin administration on the dogs and observed increased gazing behavior, which in turn increased urinary oxytocin concentrations in their owners. These results suggest the presence of an interspecies oxytocin-mediated cycle, enabled and modulated by gazing, which may have supported the coevolution of human and dog bonding.
You’re just too good to be true
I can’t take my eyes off you
Moreover, a 1970 study in social psychology has revealed that lovers who report being strongly in love spend substantially more time gazing into each other’s eyes, than couples that were weakly in love.
It has also been found that gazing into someone’s eyes for some time can lead us to develop feelings for them. In particular, one study took unacquainted people in pairs and studied the effects two minutes of uninterrupted mutual eye contact had on their feelings towards one another. They found that these previously complete strangers, after gazing into each other’s eyes for only two minutes, later reported having increased feelings of love and affection towards the other person they were asked to make eye contact with in the experiment.
It is therefore fairly plausible to say that eye contact and empathy are like chicken-and-egg, that the staring into each other’s eyes for lengthy periods of time is also what strengthens lovers’ connection, the empathy they have for one another, which again reinforces mutual love.
So shall we compete in staring contests with our significant others to keep the fire burning in our relationships? Not so fast!
Pardon the way that I stare
There’s nothing else to compare
In fact, we should use eye contact with caution!
It appears that extreme interpersonal eye gazing can lead to some bizarre psychological effects. In a 2015 experiment, psychologists tested what happens when couples look into each other’s eyes at low illumination for 10 minutes straight. They found that people reported strange hallucination-like face perceptions and peculiar apparitions, dissociative symptoms, and differences in auditory and time perception.
Remember, gazing can create exceptionally powerful feelings in us. Thus, one should be weary of the fact that it becomes easy to project such related feelings onto the other. We only have our own eyes to rely on, and even those, are at times not the most dependable.
In those moments when we lock our eyes with somebody, are we also bonding, synching, and synchronizing on some neuronal level?
Researchers recently put people in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in twos while they were gazing into each other’s eyes and investigated the neural mechanisms of eye contact. They found that subjects showed enhanced neural synchronization with each other on the right frontal lobe, and the right inferior frontal gyrus, which is correlated with empathy and social communication.
Interesting evidence that may shed some light on the neural substrates of eye contact, comes from non-human subjects: A study with Rhesus monkeys has lead to the discovery of new eye cells in the amygdala of the monkey, which respond selectively to eye contact. If similar eye cells are found in humans, the question of whether these cells’ impairment plays a role in some disorders such as autism could be resolved!
The bottom line is that the magic behind eye contact remains a mystery. Its mesmeric power however, is undoubtedly clear.
In 2010, performance artist Marina Abramović engaged in a prolonged performance called The Artist Is Present at MoMA in New York. She sat without talking or moving, 8 hours a day for over 3 months, across from an empty chair as people in the spectators took turns sitting in the chair and gazing directly into Abramovic’s eyes. She locked eyes with over a thousand strangers during this time, all showing intense emotional states, with many breaking into tears.
Of the performance, Abramovic has said, “Nobody could imagine…that anybody would take time to sit and just engage in mutual gaze with me…It was a complete surprise…this enormous need of humans to actually have contact.”
Also check out “World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment” should you wish to get involved in an akin experience!