Mirror to the Soul

What does it take to fall in love with somebody? Are the ingredients hatched from days, months, and years of shared personal experience; or is the phenomenon merely a chemical reaction in the brain?

According to research conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron a little more than two decades ago, all we need is four minutes of prolonged eye contact.

Here at BTR we decided to put Aron’s experiment to the grinding stone. If he could inspire intimacy between two strangers in a laboratory, it stands to reason that we could do the same. We settled into a quiet stairwell in our Chelsea office and stared into one another’s eyes. This is what happened.

Hannah’s Take (Lisa’s Partner)

The second that my partner and I first made eye contact, and continuing throughout the entire exercise, I just couldn’t stop laughing. But why? My best guess is that it was an involuntary reaction to discomfort on both sides. Most people do not participate in intense direct eye contact while engaging in conversation–let alone while sitting in complete silence.

I suppose prolonged eye contact feels a bit too intimate to me, because it’s not often seen as a platonic act. It was challenging, and comparable to when you’re trying to give your full attention to what someone is saying, rather than simply absorbing their words in the process of thinking up a response.

I would definitely participate in this kind of exercise in the future, but would be more likely to do so if paired with someone I already know very well in order to (hopefully) encourage a more relaxed environment.

Lisa’s Take (Hannah’s Partner)

Eyes are the fingerprints of the soul. Each person carries the uniqueness of their own experience, with so many complexities contained within a singular gaze. I delighted in two main insights from staring into the eyes of a relative stranger.

First, locking eyes with someone expedites the process of building a relationship with that person. It’s why eye contact can be so uncomfortable and overwhelming, as floods of interpretations on the other person’s psyche, well-being, and even childhood can be seen by a keen observer.

Once the eyes meet and silence bathes the moment, walls of judgment crumble around us. The suffering and the discomfort chime empathetically with my own memories of these states.

I see a human, and likewise, I see myself–the kindle that ignites a human bond.

Secondly, the presence of the immediate moment awakens into reality. The unconventional practice of looking into the eyes of another human without some practical or selfish motive breaks the mental silos that detach us from the world.

The seemingly strange affair of an electric eye contact allows us to disregard the abstract ideas of the future that so frequently assume priority. The present moment, the only reality we ever truly know, assures its worth again.

Becca’s Take (Samantha’s Partner)

I’m not quite sure why, but I genuinely enjoy putting myself in situations that might make other people uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a mind over matter way to push myself, or maybe it’s just this longing that I have to experience things that are extraordinary, or at least abnormal, as often as possible. I like to open myself to new experiences, even if they’re a little scary.

This was definitely unusual. We were randomly paired, I with Samantha, and we set the timer for two minutes (longer than we had initially agreed upon). Throughout the entirety of the allotted time I actively tried to separate myself from… well… myself.

As I stared into Samantha’s eyes I did everything in my power to focus on what she might be feeling instead of any discomfort which could creep in. I thought about who Samantha was. I recounted what types of feelings she had expressed to me in the past, and what I knew of her fears. I focused my energy into trying to convey a sense of comfort; an attempt to provide a home for the uneasiness I sensed she might be feeling. She giggled nervously (we all did in the beginning,) and some rogue chatter and passersby interrupted the silence we were cultivating. I tried to say with my eyes, “It’s going to be okay.”

The time went by more quickly than I thought it would. And, despite the distractions, I think that we shared a couple of authentic moments of mutual understanding.

However, I realize now that maybe my approach was a cop-out. By deflecting the focus from myself onto my partner, maybe I missed the point of the exercise–which I think is to put yourself in a situation where you feel truly vulnerable, and to be joined there by somebody else who is doing the same.

Samantha’s Take (Becca’s Partner)

Connecting with someone simply through vision is a remarkable experience.

With Becca as my partner, we sat silently across from each other and shared words with our eyes. The exercise, which forced us to stare at each other for two minutes without exchanging anything but a glance, left me with several realizations about myself and my partner.

I immediately sensed my own discomfort in this setting, as I struggled to stop myself from nervously smiling. Becca’s unwavering focus only intensified my discomfort. I tried my best to stay composed, wanting desperately to match her self-control. Eventually, after the initial moments of uneasiness and distraction wore off, I felt that we connected on a level that may only be summarized as understanding.

Becca recognized my uneasiness from the beginning, but she managed to bring me into a calming state. Although her gaze was serious and resolute, she somehow invited me to revel in the experience with her.

Although at first two minutes seemed daunting, I felt my eyes lingering long after the clock had struck. It seemed as though we had only just reached the beginning of this shared experience, and it wasn’t easy to turn away from that.

Aubrey’s Take (Zach’s Partner)

It’s amazing that two people can look directly at each other and see only themselves.

The group sat in two parallel rows: shoulders square to shoulders, chests reflecting chests, eyes level, a space bound by separate bodies with all the force and acuity of our vision turned in on one another. You would think we’d have charged the air with our perception.

But the moment my partner and I were after–when the fluttering of your own awareness stills and acquiesces to the imposition of another person’s gaze–never presented itself, and if it did, it only came over us for several seconds before dissipating into self-consciousness again.

Maybe we needed more time. Or maybe it was the giggling of other partners trying and failing to overcome their squeamishness that prevented us from slipping out of ourselves and into a mutually vulnerable space.

The fact of the matter is that you can’t even begin to see the other person until you stop paying attention to yourself, which is an immense challenge, given that the exercise itself incites a nearly unbearable ultra-awareness of your own body.

Reflecting on the experience, I see that I was too busy resisting the rampant flood of hyper-consciousness incited by another person’s gaze–the sudden knowledge of my skin, my breath, my eyes, my pulse, my subtle movements–to see the other person at all.

Ultimately, the exercise is not about looking at someone else; it’s about allowing yourself to be seen. And until one person cedes entirely to that sensation–until both parties stop caring about how they are being perceived–neither partner will succeed in seeing the other.

Zach’s Take (Aubrey’s Partner)

It was hard to do with eyes so blue. Pupils flitting like flying saucers across oceans that were anything but calm.

The constant distractions we both felt were in large part due to the giggles from our fellow staff writers. We made the mistake of seating ourselves into two parallel lines. While nobody quite looked away from their designated partner, the peripheral outbursts, smiles, and awkward asides were enough to squelch the silence needed for such a practice in intimacy.

Still, there was a genuine moment where I felt connection. Briefly, everything else turned to static and gently receded. All that remained were two eyes, two wordless windows that seemed to twinkle–albeit fleetingly–with an entire lifetime of story and vision. And to realize that somebody else might also see straight through to me, peering into my most honest and vulnerable self…

Averting our gaze on crowded subways and streets, it’s a place we don’t often let ourselves wander. But perhaps we should.

I’d like to return again for another look.

Feature photo courtesy of Ray’s flickr.