Cultivating Connection: Reviving the Lost Art of Eye Contact

two people chatting over coffeeA couple is out to dinner. Instead of gazing into each other’s eyes, both partners are looking at their smartphones, checking email or texting someone else. This is their date night, time away from the kids, a time they set aside to nurture their bond. But they have turned away from each other and toward their devices. Rather than bonding with each other, they are bonding with their phones and with the endless stream of stimulation and distraction they offer.

The Eyes Have It

It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Indeed, modern neuroscience supports this. The eyes and the muscles around the eyes convey our emotions to others. We read others’ emotions quickly and beneath awareness by looking at their eyes. There are neurons in the brain dedicated to reading these communications in the faces of others. We evolved for face-to-face communication; it is through this close physical presence that we share experiences and knit together our intimate relationships.

Early in my relationship with my would-be husband, I would look into his eyes; I saw there the depths of his soul. I also saw myself reflected back through his gaze. In his eyes, I saw myself as beloved, special, sparkling. Our loving eye contact bonded us and nourished our love. We declared our love the same way lovers do in the movie Avatar: by looking into the beloved’s eyes and saying, “I see you.”

Now, decades into our marriage, on top of our relational game, we still make eye contact. But it’s so easy to give way to distraction, to forget to look at each other while speaking, to talk while multitasking—one eye on the spouse, the other on the computer or smartphone.

In unhappy relationships, partners may see in each other’s eyes a negative reflection—the self as belittled, uncherished, rejected. Other couples don’t look in each other’s eyes at all, taking each other for granted or avoiding emotional intimacy.

Not-So-Social Media

Many middle school girls love to hang out and talk—about their feelings, relationships, upsets, and dreams. These days, rather than talking to each other, they are often texting or chatting through one form of social media or another, looking at their devices instead of each other. The urge to connect is still there—these kids, like all of us, are deeply social creatures—but they are less likely to make eye contact and more likely to bond via technology.

We are engaged in a peculiar neurobiological-cultural experiment. The human brain is shaped by experience. And for the first time, our children’s brains are developing in a world of devices. Less eye contact, more reliance on technology: this could change the development of the growing brain.

When we look in another’s eyes, we pick up their feelings; we experience a resonance in our own body, feeling what the other feels.

Eye Contact and Empathy

When we look in another’s eyes, we pick up their feelings; we experience a resonance in our own body, feeling what the other feels. This is an automatic process, beneath awareness, and is considered a crucial component of empathy.

What is the impact on empathy when we don’t make much eye contact? There is research that in recent years empathy has plummeted among college students. We have seen a huge spike in cyberbullying as well. In one intriguing study, cyber cruelty was much reduced when subjects could see the eyes of the person they might bully on the screen. Eye contact stimulates our moral brain, promoting prosocial behavior.

Nurturing Connection

We need others throughout our lives to survive and thrive. For most of human history—and prehistory—our social connections took place in small groups of physical proximity. But these days, our best friends may live across the country, and we may see our parents or siblings only a few times a year, getting on a plane to do so. Technology can help far-flung friends and relations stay in touch; we can video chat via Skype or FaceTime, nurturing connection across oceans.

I recently “had lunch” with a dear friend via FaceTime on our iPads. I was too sick to meet her in person for our weekly lunch, so I sat in my kitchen and she in hers. As we munched, we made eye contact, and the magic of empathy and connection flourished via our devices. Whenever I sit with this friend, I receive a boost of oxytocin thanks to her warmth and empathy. (Oxytocin is the bonding hormone that is released with empathy, among other things.) Amazingly, I felt that oxytocin boost even through our video chat!

Our devices can be sources of connection or disconnection. They are tools, to be used wisely or thoughtlessly. In our in-person contacts as well as through technological means, we have the choice of cultivating eye contact and connection or turning away. Research shows that long-term love needs to be nurtured; happy couples turn toward each other and cultivate their bond. These happier couples are healthier and live longer. We all need to be seen; looking into the eyes of a trusted partner or friend can give both the other person and us the gifts of connection, empathy, oxytocin, and good health.

References:

  1. Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. NY: WW Norton.
  2. Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.
  3. Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 434-443.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mona D. Fishbane, PhD, therapist in Highland Park, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lois

    Lois

    May 27th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    There is something about being able to make eye contact with someone that can let you know so much about them. I think that this is why for the most part I don’t trust that you can meet someone on line and fall head over heels in love with them, not that kind of love that will last forever because you have not been able to look them directly in the eye to see what it is that they are all about. I know that there are those who will say that this isn’t true, but for me the only way to really know someone is to have that real heart to heart talk with them and that has to be face to face for me to get a real sense of who they are and where they are coming from.

  • Cara

    Cara

    May 27th, 2015 at 4:38 PM

    the lost art of ye contact
    the lost art of writing
    makes me fearful that the lost art of talking to each other could be the next on the list

  • kim d

    kim d

    May 28th, 2015 at 3:38 AM

    It is sort of a sad fact but most of us really need to practice doing this in our relationships. As a matter of fact I think that there was another piece on this site about doing this very thing a few weeks ago maybe, that this is something that you and your partner have to practice together. Sounds like a great plan to me, for not only holding the relationship together but also for reestablishing things when something has gotten lost along the way.

  • Trey

    Trey

    May 28th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    Establishing and maintaining eye contact is a wonderful way to generate a whole new conversation with someone in your life. I know that this can feel a little uncomfortable but if this is someone that you are genuinely interested in learning more about then I think that this is a perfect way to establish a common rapport with them!

  • darla

    darla

    May 28th, 2015 at 2:39 PM

    Yeah like the weirdest thing is I always know when someone is being all fake because they might be smiling but it is never in their eyes.

  • Norman

    Norman

    May 29th, 2015 at 11:18 AM

    I can honestly say that this is why I fell in love with my wife. She was so willing and able to hold a gaze while talking to you, that I almost couldn’t stand to look away.

  • Sissy

    Sissy

    May 30th, 2015 at 7:09 AM

    There are some things that seem so simple, like keeping eye contact with another person, or even the art of conversation that has been lost throughout the years. And I would have to say if I was pressed that this is something that we have started to lose in huge steps just over t the past few years. We have allowed things to become so remote, so disconnected that we have lost the need to cultivate even these most basic of manners and etiquette.

  • Benji

    Benji

    May 31st, 2015 at 11:27 AM

    I only wish that my girlfriend could see all of the wonderful and amazing things about herself that I see.

  • Chad

    Chad

    June 4th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    If maintaining simple eye contact is a lost art, then I would say that society as a whole has some pretty big issues that we are going to have to fully address very soon. I don’t know how much more basic communicating with another person can be other than looking someone in the eye and speaking with them. But we have lost the ability to do that. It has become if we can’t type it out or express how we feel with emoticons then whatever, we just won’t say it at all.
    How on earth did we let this happen?

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