We Need to Stop Overlooking Eye Contact

An eye, staring deep into your soul. Eye contact is deeply uncomfortable for some, but is there a psychological reason for this? Photo by Ayanna Villanueva. 

What is the best power play? Hold eye contact and do not look away until the other person looks away. Fun silent game to play? Staring contest. There are countless numbers of uses for eye contact, and just as many intentions behind them.  

The phrase ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’ is ancient, coming from an old phrase meaning that it’s possible to tell how someone is feeling based off of their eyes, which is wholly true. I personally used to attribute this saying directly to the eyeball, when in fact, it is actually referring to the overall eye region. The peaks of the cheeks, the curve of the brow, the width of the eyes: each and every one is a way that humans project how we feel, silent though it may be. A person knows how to read these signs because most people’s faces all have, and use, similar expressions to reflect emotions, making it a universal language, no translation needed. But eyes obviously aren’t only used for determining how a person feels; it’s a cycle, someone uses their eyes and brain to determine how someone else is feeling based off of their eyes, and in turn, the other person’s eyes do the same. 

In order to do this, it is most common to simply make eye contact. But for some, specifically autistic people, this seemingly simple task can be much more difficult, and even painful. It is because of this that Franklin social studies teacher, Greg Garcia, who is autistic, has developed different assurance methods for those he is conversing with to show that he is, in fact, addressing them. Garcia told me of his methods when we spoke: “my shoulder and elbow pop up in your direction to indicate that I am addressing you and not the two other people in this room.” When we did make eye contact, he would avert his eyes rather quickly, looking into what he called the middle distance until he developed a level of comfort enough to hold eye contact with me. According to Garcia, the societal rules of eye contact are prevalent in Western cultures, and someone has even told him that they’re offended by his lack of eye contact. 

Despite this, Garcia noted that the longer he and I spoke, the more comfortable he was with making eye contact with me. He attributed this change to a process called habituation, in which a stimulus affects a person a lot at first, but the longer they are exposed to it, the more their brain can handle, and the less the stimulus affects them. He used songs as an analogy for what habituation is like; “if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re listening to a song, your favorite song, and you listen to it every single day for like a month…you know it by heart, does it still have the same punch as it did at the beginning?” Clearly it does not. So what happens when someone comes back to that song after a long time? The punch is back, because they haven’t been exposed to the stimulus, so their brain is once again exposed to this relatively unknown stimulus. For Garcia, his threshold for discomfort increases after longer exposure to eye contact, making it easier for him to hold contact without feeling pain or anxiety.

Eye contact can potentially improve health, but also worsen it. This is because of mirror neurons, which are activated when a person is consuming some kind of media or outside stimulus, like a book or a sports game. Mirror neurons make people feel like whatever they are seeing is in fact happening to them. It is because of this that if one makes eye contact with someone who is happy, they are likely to feel happy because of it. On the other hand, they could begin to feel sad or depressed if the person they make eye contact with is sad. It’s all about how people process these stimuli. 

All of these factors combined explain why eye contact can be so overwhelming and intimate. People can literally tell what you are feeling in your soul just from looking at you, and being that vulnerable without ever intending to is horrifying. But the fact that you can make someone who is having a bad day feel even a little better by holding eye contact with them may just make all the weirdness worth it. 

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