We all know what it feels like when suddenly our eyes meet a stranger's in a crowded room or place. And we know that eye contact is crucial to inspiring trust.
But psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying eye contact for decades, and their findings reveal much more about its power, according to a report on BBC.com. For instance, an established finding is that gazing eyes compel our attention, making us less aware of what else is going on around us. Also, meeting someone’s gaze almost immediately engages a series of brain activities, as we make sense of the fact that we are dealing with the mind of another person who is currently looking at us. As a result, we become more conscious of that other person’s agency, mind and perspective – and, in turn, this makes us more self-conscious.
Not surprisingly, the experience of realizing we are the object of another mind is highly distracting. In a recent study by Japanese researchers, volunteers looked at a video of a face while completing a word puzzle that involved coming up with verbs to match various nouns (for instance, if they heard the noun “milk,” a suitable response would be “drink”). Crucially, the volunteers found the word challenge (but only for the trickier nouns) more difficult when the face in the video appeared to be making eye contact with them. The researchers think this effect occurred because eye contact – even with a stranger in a video – is so intense that it strains our cognitive energy.
Another documented effect of mutual gaze may help explain why that moment of eye contact across a room can sometimes feel so compelling, according to the BBC report. The report says, “A recent study found that mutual gaze leads to a kind of partial melding of the self and other: we rate strangers with whom we’ve made eye contact as more similar to us, in terms of their personality and appearance. Perhaps, in the right context, when everyone else is busy talking to other people, this effect adds to the sense that you and the person looking back at you are sharing a special moment.”
The chemistry of eye contact doesn’t end there. If you choose to move closer to the person you are locked in a gaze with, you and the other person will find that eye contact also joins you to each other in another way, in a process known as “pupil mimicry” or “pupil contagion.”
These studies suggest there is truth to the old adage about the eyes being a window to the soul. In fact, there is something truly powerful about gazing deeply into another person’s eyes.