To be under the spell of a gaze

What really happens when you look into someone's eyes? 

So much has been said about eye contact being the definitive signal for truthfulness, trustworthiness, or at least, "connectedness" between people who lock eyes. In our culture, as in many others, you always hear that if someone cannot look you in the eye, then she or he is not sincere. But what does eye contact do to us that could make us say such powerful, judgmental statements about the other?

First of all, we humans really evolved to home in on faces because that is where we can get our cues on how to react to situations. Since that "strategy" proved to be very crucial in our survival, we have sharpened that ability. In fact, we have a brain circuitry, a most active area in the brain, when we recognize faces. We are so wired to recognize facial patterns that we impose this "wiring" even on non-human or even inanimate objects. This explains how we can see apparitions in clouds, random paint, or even Jesus in bread toast.  

In fact, a study published almost at the same time as the "eye blink study" I mentioned earlier, found that as long as people who conversed looked at the general area between the eyes and the mouth of the other, participants reported enjoying the conversation just as much as if they had eye contact. They did this with eye-tracking devices so they could tell whether someone is looking at the other's eye directly or just in the vicinity.

But there is still something powerful that happens when you lock eyes with another. Why?

Once you behold a face, the most striking among all the visible parts of a face are the eyes because not only do they move but you can also tell which direction they are looking. How? Because the human eye has a larger proportion of "white" area (sclera) that surrounds the pigmented iris. With the backdrop being white and large, any darker colored object will be easily detectable. 

And then once you make eye contact, you immediately feel a "shift" in your interest and attention. You are no longer just looking at a face but you are now beholding one, and a very recent study by Japanese researchers has now given us a glimpse of what happens to our brains and to the other person when we make eye contact. 

The study found that people who stare at each other's eyes in real time are able to unconsciously synchronize not only their eye blinks but also the activation of areas of the brain that are responsible for emotional and motor responses. All that when you lock eyes with another!

Eye blinks are great indications of the human window of attention, and studies have shown that people whose eye blinks are synchronized experience one way of "automimicry" – a natural, unconscious expression of relating.

The experiment did not even involve any conversation. It involved people looking at each other on screens in real time or delayed time. The participants were asked to look at either eye of the other and think about what the other is thinking about, what his personality may be, and what they may be feeling. They were asked not to show any particular facial expression like laughing. This was all done while the participants were hooked up to a brain scanning machine that can look at the brain in motion while the person is engaged in an activity (fMRI). 

Now we have more evidence that eye contact is more than just a laser alignment of the irises of two people but is accompanied by a shift in your perception that she or he is now part of your inner world, even if only temporarily.

This would also explain why eye contact could bother us, with one study even finding that it could make it harder for us to think. It turns out that maintaining eye contact relies on the same mental resources as reasoning, and so when the participants in the study underwent a verbal test while maintaining a gaze into another's eyes, they significantly did worse than those who just looked at the side of the eyes. This further makes for the superpower abilities of eye contact to shape the way we perceive the other and the way we function.

Knowing this, imagine how much we have lost in this age when eye contact could easily be dropped in favor of staring at one's phone? If eye contact is one of the deeply set natural ways that literally sets into motion brain work to understand and respond to the other, even strangers, how much chances have we forsaken in favor of looking at our screens? –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at