Me, Myself, and Eye

Have you ever had that feeling -the sense of joining another mind? A realization that you are noticed… entered? Sometimes it is a validation, a proof you are not alone; sometimes, though, it is almost a violation. A trespass…

I think I became wary of eyes as a little child when it occurred to me that there was something inside them looking out. Someone hiding in there behind the little windows watching me. The infinite regress of eyes necessary to complete the task was lost on me -it was ‘turtles all the way down’ in those days.

I’m not so sure I’m any further along even now, though. There’s something about eyes that is compelling. Spooky. I don’t feel at all the same about ears, although they usually connect to whatever is looking at me so I suppose I should be careful. My mother used to watch me with her ears when she was in another room; it felt almost the same, except I could make faces at her without being caught.

But eyes are far more dangerous. Somehow they seem to have a direct connection to awareness; I suppose Sound and Smell have to walk further along the corridor to find the right door, and sometimes they get it wrong. I imagine it’s pretty dark in there, though, and anyway how could they ever be sure? I wouldn’t want the job.

At any rate, I’m just saying that eyes are special, and since I’m always on lookout for more information, I was delighted to find an article in the BBC Future series that saw me in the crowd:

Christian Jarrett, the author of the piece wrote that ‘gazing eyes grab and hold our attention, making us less aware of what else is going on around us… meeting someone’s gaze almost immediately engages a raft of brain processes, as we make sense of the fact that we are dealing with the mind of another person who is currently looking at us. In consequence, we become more conscious of that other person’s agency -that they have a mind and a perspective of their own– and, in turn, this makes us more self-conscious.’

I’ve always had trouble speaking to large groups unless I’m standing behind them, but I realized fairly early in my career that unless I shouted a lot, they didn’t really listen. It’s a two-edged sword though, because ‘meeting the direct gaze of another also interferes with our working memory (our ability to hold and use information in mind over short periods of time), our imagination, and our mental control, in the sense of our ability to suppress irrelevant information.’ This is probably why I was only ever able to get dates over the phone -or by writing on scraps of paper and sneaking them into an appropriate appurtenance without seeming to be, well,  groping or whatever.

I remember I used to blush easily, and if the notee stared at me, I would become acutely uncomfortable -especially if, despite looking puzzled, she decided to decline my offer with hooded eyes and a prolonged, painful expression on her face. Growing up was not easy. Still, I learned that it was perhaps more the length of stare than the rejection that bothered me: ‘too much eye contact can also make us uncomfortable – and people who stare without letting go can come across as creepy… psychologists recently tried to establish the preferred length of eye contact. They concluded that, on average, it is three seconds long (and no one preferred gazes that lasted longer than nine seconds).’ I think I made it to 5 seconds once, but I figured she was still making up her mind.

Now that I’m older, however, I’ve learned to be more direct, and stare back for as long as it takes. Unfortunately, the results haven’t changed much, but at least I can guess why: ‘another important eye feature are limbal rings: the dark circles that surround your irises. Recent evidence suggests that these limbal rings are more often visible in younger, healthier people, and that onlookers know this on some level, such that heterosexual women looking for a short-term fling judge men with more visible limbal rings to be more healthy and desirable.’ I don’t seem to have any now, although I can’t say I ever noticed them. Mind you, I don’t remember any short term flings in my youth either, so maybe I have a genetic flaw.

The most creepy thing I learned from the BBC article, however, was what happens if you dim the lights and hold the gaze of another person for 10 minutes non-stop. Strange things are supposed to happen. It can include feeling like the world is unreal, memory loss, and odd perceptual experiences such as seeing the world in black and white. There was a link in the article about this but I figured I’d never convince anyone to go along with the dim lights thing so I didn’t bother.

Apparently the same thing is also supposed to occur if you are able to stare at yourself in a mirror for a long time, though. I decided to try it while I was shaving one morning, but apart from a few nicks from the razor, I have to say it was disappointing. Mind you, I have this thing about trying to do stuff with my left hand to encourage neuroplasticity, so I had to concentrate on the blade rather than on my eyes. I suppose it’s much like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach.  Anyway, maybe I’m not very neuroplastic -or maybe it’s just one of those times you really need another set of eyes…



1 thought on “Me, Myself, and Eye

  1. And then there are the studies that show that gazing into someone’s eyes for 4 minutes causes you to fall in love…


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