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How Eye Contact Affects Our Behavior

How Eye Contact Affects Our Behavior

Vicki Santillano | DivineCaroline

March 09, 2011

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.

Next: A Simple Gaze Inspires Complex Behaviors >>


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