A 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.
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.
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.
- Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. NY: WW Norton.
- 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.
- 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.
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.