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How Eye Contact Affects Our Brains

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How Eye Contact Affects Our Brains

By Vicki Santillano, DivineCaroline

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.

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Molly, selected from 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.

124 comments

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12:45PM PDT on Aug 17, 2012

so very interesting. thanks

8:23AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Eye contact is fascinating and there have been some students punished because they did not make eye contact with the principal at school. The assumption was that the student was lying about an incident when it turned out that the student came from a nation where eye contact with authority is considered disrespectful. In Japan for instance, often children have been instructed at an early age never to look in a teacher's eyes as this is considered a sign of disrespect. Eyes are directed at the Adam's apple.

It all depends where you come from and in some areas of the world can land one in some serious trouble. Always check local customs and traditions when travelling!

In my part of the world, people are fairly open about looking others in the eye for brief periods even with strangers. Some places practice this but many keep their eyes averted say in an elevator in a big city such as New York, while a small town in either Canada and other western countries will often see people more relaxed about this custom.

9:36AM PDT on Jul 28, 2012

Among dogs, and I assume other animals, holding eye contact is a sign of dominance. That's why you should never look a strange dog in the eye for long; it's considered a challenge.

7:47PM PDT on Jul 16, 2012

Thanks .

【AgedMatch_CoM】 is an effective dating site, I met my date there one week ago. If you are still single, you can register an account and have a try. By the way, it is free to join. Good luck, Tracy

4:19PM PDT on Jul 10, 2012

interesting

10:15AM PDT on Jul 4, 2012

The eyes have it. It is so true with making eye contact to ones you know and to strangers. A big difference. Also shows what emotion they are feeling. Not just eyes for seeing but to express on different levels of feelings.

6:14AM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

eyes are the mirror to our souls. You can tell so much by looking at someones eyes.

9:31AM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

Enjoyed this very much

8:17AM PDT on Jun 19, 2012

I was visiting with male friend while sitting outside a museum. We were chatting about the exhibits and unintentionally I looked directly into his eyes and I had the strangest sensation like I was being pulled into them. It was unnerving and I broke eye contact. I have never experienced that again and I still have no idea what caused the feelings since we were just friends.

6:31AM PDT on Jun 17, 2012

Here's looking at you Molly. Thanks!

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