Surely ever, being in a noisy room full of people, you surprised yourself by looking into your eyes with another person. It's almost like a movie scene: the rest of the world fades to gray, while you and that other person are momentarily connected, aware that she looks at you and you at her.
Yes, it's true: eye contact is not always that exciting. In the end, it is a natural part of most conversations, but it is almost always important.
We make assumptions about the personality of people based on the time they look at us in the eyes or look the other way when we talk to them. And when we meet strangers on the street or in some other public place, we may feel rejected if they do not establish eye contact with us.
Although we already know all this from our everyday experiences, psychologists and neuroscientists have studied visual contact for decades. And his intriguing findings reveal much more about the power he has. For example, what our eyes count and how eye contact changes what we think about the person who looks at us.
A recurring finding is that the eyes that look at us attract and retain our attention, which makes us less aware of what is happening around us (which "turns gray", as we mentioned before).
In addition, holding someone's gaze involves a series of brain processes, since we realize that we are relating to that person's mind. Consequently, it makes us more aware of the existence of the other person, that he has a mind and a perspective of his own, which, in turn, makes us more aware of ourselves.
You may have noticed these effects with special intensity if you ever held the look of a monkey or an ape in a zoo: it is almost impossible not to surrender to the feeling that they are conscious beings who judge and examine you.
In fact, it has been shown that even looking at a portrait that seems to look at us activates a range of brain activity related to social cognition, that is, thinking about ourselves and other people.
Capacity of concentration
It is not surprising that it distracts us very much to realize that we are the object of another mind.
Let's look for it in a recent study conducted by Japanese researchers. The volunteers had to watch a video in which a face appeared while completing a pun in which they had to relate verbs with names. For example, if you heard the word 'milk', an appropriate response would be 'drink'.
Well, the volunteers had much more difficulty with the word game (in the more complicated names) when the face of the video seemed to make eye contact with them.
Researchers believe that this effect occurs because eye contact, even with a stranger in a video, is something so intense that it reduces our cognitive reserves.
Similar research revealed that looking into a person's eyes also interferes with working memory (the ability to keep and use the information we have in mind for short periods of time), imagination and mind control.
It is possible that, without realizing it, you have interrupted the eye contact with another person to concentrate better on what you are saying or thinking. Some psychologists even recommend looking the other way as a strategy to help young children answer questions.
In addition to saturating our brains socially, research also shows that eye contact shapes the perception we have of the person who looks at us.
For example, we generally perceive that people with the most tendency to make eye contact are smarter, more conscious and sincere (at least in Western cultures), and we are more likely to believe what they say.
A special moment?
It is true, too, that an excess of eye contact can make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, people who stare for a long time can seem creepy.
In a recent study in a science museum, a group of psychologists tried to determine the ideal duration of eye contact. They came to the conclusion that, on average, it is three seconds. And no study person opted for a look of more than nine seconds.
Another effect of eye contact can help explain why that precise moment in which we look with another person in a room can be, at times, so absorbing.
A recent study revealed that this look leads to a kind of partial fusion between the self and the other: we qualify the strangers with whom we have established eye contact as more similar to ourselves, in terms of personality and appearance.
Perhaps, in the right context, when everyone else is busy talking, this effect adds to the feeling that you and that person are sharing a special moment.
The chemistry of eye contact does not end there. If they decide to approach, they will realize that the eye contact also unites them in another way. It is a process known as "pupil mimicry" or "pupil contagion", according to which their pupils and those of the other person dilate and contract in synchrony.
This is interpreted as a form of subconscious social mimicry, a kind of eye dance, and is perceived as a romantic gesture.
But recently there was some skepticism about this phenomenon, and some researchers say it is simply a response to variations in the brightness of the other person's eyes (up close, the fact that the other person's pupils dilate increases the darkness of the scene, which causes our pupils to also dilate).
This does not mean that the dilation of the pupil does not have a psychological meaning. In fact, at least until the 1960s, psychologists studied the way in which our pupils dilate when we are more excited or stimulated (in a physiological sense), whether by intellectual, emotional, aesthetic or sexual interest.
This led us to debate whether we perceive that the faces with the most dilated pupils (sometimes understood as a sign of sexual interest) are more attractive. At least some studies, some decades ago and others more recent, suggest that yes.
Be that as it may, centuries before this research, popular wisdom already considered that dilated pupils were attractive. At various times in history, women even used a plant extract to deliberately dilate the pupils as a way to become more attractive (hence the colloquial name of the plant: "belladonna").
But when we look at another person deeply in the eyes, not only the pupils send messages.
Other recent research suggests that we can read complex emotions in the muscles of the eyes, depending on whether a person is puckering or opening the eyes. Thus, for example, when an emotion such as repulsion makes us squint, this "ocular expression" also indicates our repulsion to others.
Another important feature of the eyes are the limbal rings, that is, the dark circles that surround the iris. Recent research suggests that these limbal rings are more visible in younger, healthier people, and that people who look at them somehow know it.
All these studies suggest that there is much truth in the old saying that the eyes are the window of the soul. In fact, there is something incredibly powerful in looking deeply into another person's eyes. They say that the eyes are the only part of our brain that is directly exposed to the world.
When you look another person in the eyes, think: perhaps it is as close as you are to "touch the brains," or souls, if you prefer to be more poetic in these things.
Given this intense intimacy, it is perhaps not surprising that if you dim the lights and keep looking at another person for 10 minutes without stopping, you will see that strange things happen, more strange than you have ever experienced.