Although often subtle and rarely talked about, eye contact is an important feature of our social lives. It can help us build relationships, lead us to make character judgements, help us in business, and it even has the power to change how we feel. Eye contact can make a situation comfortable and enjoyable or awkward and tiring. It has to be just right as well – not too long and not too short, not too intense yet not too distant either. There are times when making eye contact is important and there are times when breaking that non-verbal communication is not only natural but necessary. While all that may seem complex, it’s something that most of us seem to know and understand instinctively, but that simply raises more questions than it answers. How do we know when to connect and when to avert our gaze, why do we do it, and why is it so important?
The Importance of a Loving Gaze
Eye contact seems like an innate form of communication, an inherent skill that we know from birth, and research shows that this is probably right. It’s been shown, for example, that babies even just two days old prefer to look at faces that are gazing back at them. By four months, an infant’s brain activity increases when making eye contact with other people. In fact, a lack of eye contact is one of the ways in which autism is identified in children, as looking other people in the eye is such an ingrained social behavior. By adulthood, communicating via eye contact increase bodily awareness and self-consciousness, and research shows that after engaging in this way, we judge the other person as more sophisticated, more self-controlled, morally upstanding, and more socially adept than those who avert their eyes or whose timing is off.
It can have even deeper effects too, as shown in a study by Giovanni Caputo in 2015. He paired volunteers and had them stare at either a blank wall or into one another’s eyes, unwaveringly, for ten minutes. Once completed, he questioned participants on their experiences and came to the conclusion that intense, prolonged eye contact can actually alter your state of consciousness. While those staring at the wall reported no change, those who gazed at each other reported seeing hallucinations of monsters, their relatives, and even of their own faces.