Another look at eye contact

This summer, I discovered something huge about myself, and others.  I rarely made eye contact with anyone. If I did, it was only for a few seconds and never meaningful. It was really just me looking up when I knew someone was trying to look me in the eyes and I knew it would be awkward if I didn’t reciprocate. It seems meaningless, but let me tell you how important this realization was.

The moment I realized this was when I took a picture of my friend, really capturing his eyes. I finally noticed he has a green eye and a blue eye! I have no idea how, in the five years I’ve been around him, I never looked him in the eyes long enough to realize that he had two different eye colors. Then I thought back and tried to remember the color of all my friends’ eyes. I couldn’t, and I was ashamed.

Social signals, particularly eye contact, are critical to social adaptation. Eye contact can express feelings, as well as motivations. It can help you understand how genuine or deceiving a person is, how sad or happy. Looking into someone’s eyes really is a window into their soul, or if you don’t believe in souls, it’s at least a deeper look into a person’s body language. The more eye contact someone holds, the more confident they are perceived, even more trustworthy. The more often someone looks away and breaks eye contact, the more they seem like they’re trying to hide something.

After I mentioned eye contact to my friend and how I really seemed to have been avoiding it all my life, he wanted to do an experiment. We went on a hike and sat by a river; we then set a timer for ten minutes. He wanted me to make eye contact, and not look away at all, for ten minutes straight. I didn’t even make it three seconds before I felt extremely self-conscious and silly. I kept breaking the contact and tried to get him to drop the subject, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, he gave in and agreed to lower the bar; he set the timer to three minutes.

I started off by blankly staring into his eyes. I wasn’t really seeing anything; but I felt him seeing me. Not just looking at me, but really seeing me. It’s a feeling I can’t describe, and I encourage you all to try it out or even just research it. Making continuous eye contact for prolonged periods of time has been reported to have some very strange, even psychedelic effects. I know it sounds crazy; but I promise, just research or give it a try. After about 20 seconds of feeling extremely award and fighting the urge to break the stare, I had 30 seconds of feeling like I was naked and completely exposed. Finally, I started to actually see my friend. Again, I don’t know how to explain it, and all I can say is try it, but I experienced a million emotions in a millionth of a second. I realized a lot about myself and a lot about my friend, so much that I felt the tears well up and a few slid down my face. On a river bank, in the middle of summer, with just nature and my best friend, I cried for a few minutes.

In that moment, I felt like a stronger connection was formed. He didn’t even need to break the stare to comfort me, and I felt as if he knew exactly how I was feeling. After that day, I was a little obsessed with the idea of eye contact. People rarely make eye contact for more than a few seconds at a time. There are even articles about “the rules of eye contact.” I really can’t think of a time when anyone has made eye contact for more than a minute naturally. I researched it in published papers, blogs, news articles, and even Reddit. What everyone seemed to agree on was that making eye contact can, in some ways, be more intimate than physical contact, and that’s why people shy away from it.

Therapists prescribe prolonged eye contact exercises to couples who are having issues, to people with self-esteem issues, and to people who feel disconnected or depressed. I even found research on how it could help schizophrenics and those with autism to reconnect with their feelings and sense of self, as well as getting over social anxiety. I was blown away by the power of eye contact.

I am still extremely intrigued by the subject and hope to experience this again. Maybe I’ll hit up one of my friends soon and force them to make eye contact with me for a few minutes. Anyway, from that day on, I’ve made it a point to make as much eye contact as possible, as often as I can, especially with those I care about. To avoid making things awkward of course, it’s never more than a few seconds. I’ve noticed some small changes. When greeting a stranger, making brief eye contact seems to make the greeting more genuine and leaves more of an impression. Kind, encouraging words have double their weight when accompanied by eye contact and, again, it sounds crazy, but altered states of mind can be achieved through prolonged eye contact. Go look it up!