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How Eye Contact Affects Our Brains

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.

 

Related:
14 Things Your Eyes Say About Your Health
5 Tips to Relieve Computer Eye Strain
Look at the World with Quiet Eyes

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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 .

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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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This actually sounds very interesting. Think I'll try it this weekend.

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