The Power of Eye Contact - You & Me Week


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Maximilian Schonherr.

The implications behind locking eyes with a complete stranger are seemingly endless. Perhaps a sudden and unique “window to the soul” is afforded to those who share the moment. We are some of the only animals to rely on it for communication–which arises from our primordial instincts as hunter-gatherers.

It could prove to be an integral force in combating autism, and at the same time has the power to negate the influence of persuasion.

Despite all of science’s findings we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of this everyday phenomenon.

Regardless of conscious or subconscious factors, both voluntary and involuntary eye contact result from a part of the brain called the cerebellum (which is Latin for “little brain”). This region of the brain focuses on movement and is what has allowed our species to survive as the evolutionary hunters that we once were. It is also the reason why athletes can reach levels of peak performance.

A German study conducted in late March found that the ancient practice of honing your eyes onto a “target” stems from the use of the brain’s vestibular system. Whenever the direction of our gaze is shifted, the head and its eye movements automatically synchronize with one another through a function called the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR).

The VOR is what makes it possible for a human to center a target in the visual field. It also provides a voluntary reflex that gives us the ability to maintain eye contact. Every time you hear an earnest coach hound an athlete to “keep their eye on the ball,” you can be sure they’re referring to VOR responses.

So what about the people who suffer from poor athletic performance, or those individuals who seem unable to make eye contact during conversations?

For some time now Dr. Nadine Lehnen and colleagues Dr. Murat Saglam and Professor Stefan Glasauer have been studying how the vestibular system and cerebellum work together to help direct focus and single out targets. It was only recently, however, that they discovered a possible link between deficiencies in the system and social/physical disconnective disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Asperger Syndrome (AS).

Fortunately with this recent discovery, more and more treatments for these conditions are surfacing. Because both the vestibular system and cerebellum are key influences in maintaining balance and posture, which in turn directly influence optimization of gaze shifts, it is possible for patients suffering from AS and ASD to employ practices that will help them improve.

Glasauer wrote, “patients with cerebellar damage can learn to optimize certain parameters of head and eye movements, by adjusting the velocity of head movement, for instance.”

Perhaps even more remarkable, due to neuroplasticity and the cerebellum’s ability to adapt and reshape its tissue, eye gaze can be improved upon through practice. However our society’s increasing absorption into the world of social media–a world in which prolonged staring at computer screens reduces our level of eye-to-eye interactions–could diminish the effectiveness of the cerebellum’s functions.

This lack of movement in a three-dimensional space, coupled with an absence of human interaction, could cause the cerebellum to atrophy. It’s imperative that we continue to flex this muscle.

Dr. Kathleen Cullen from McGill University in Montreal wrote a scientific commentary in the March 2014 issue of Brain, which deals with the implications of VOR optimization and impairment.

“When you slip on an icy sidewalk, you often catch yourself before you realize it,” Cullen tells BTR. “In fact, you make postural corrections all day long and take this totally for granted.”

The reason for this, Cullen explains, is because the brain’s cerebellum is able to make an estimate (or what she refers to as an internal model) of the sensory inflow that it retrieves from the sensory system during motion. The cerebellum then computes the mismatch (or error) between what the brain expects and what the actual sensory input is.

But we begin to lose our sense of balance with age, or when we diminish our level of interaction with the outside world.

“If we become more sedentary, we have less reliable sensory information,” Cullen explains. “As we move less our brains tend to rely on vision, which is not ideal since it is a very slow sense input compared to vestibular and proprioceptive systems.”

A good remedy for this is to put down the iPhone or turn off the computer and actually talk to someone. Make eye contact with someone and hold a conversation with them. Looking one another in the eyes actually flexes your cerebellar and vestibular systems.

This isn’t the only benefit that eye contact can provide. Something as simple as a gaze can actually inspire a range of complex behaviors. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen showed a series of faces that were almost identical to subjects and discovered they preferred those that looked into the camera and mimicked eye contact. According to the journal Nature, the brain’s reward center is stimulated every time we experience this encounter.

A recent study revealed this form of connection could be responsible for promoting cooperative and altruistic behavior in individuals for the benefit of a group. A UCLA study conducted by Haley and Daniel Fessler discovered that people were more generous and even donated more money while making eye contact. This occurred even when subjects felt that they were being watched, which in some cases amounted to nothing more than a drawing of watchful eyes across a computer screen.

One moment we feel that we have a good grasp on the implications of this phenomenon, the next we suddenly find ourselves with new data challenging what we know. While the UCLA study may seem to demonstrate a level of compliance or willingness towards persuasion through eye contact, new findings published in Psychological Science seem to express exactly the opposite.

Making use of recently developed eye-tracking technology, lead researcher Frances Chen found that the more time volunteers spent staring into a speaker’s eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument.

Furthermore, a University of Stirling study showed that young adults only answered a series of questions correctly half of the time if they had to look at someone while doing it. Their scores improved significantly when they were allowed to avert their gaze.

“Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes,” Chen explained.

Creating eye contact is clearly a fundamental activity that allows us to communicate and maintain proper brain function, but also requires a great deal of mental strength and attention. More than anything, its magic continues to be a mystery that we can only reveal slowly, one blink at a time.