Looking into someone’s eyes has a profound effect on humans. It’s part of a technique that will make people fall in love, and even a picture of eyes looking at you will deter theft. What is it about eye contact that affects us so? Science is on the case.
For instance, a recurring finding is that gazing eyes grab and hold our attention, making us less aware of what else is going on around us (that ‘fading to grey’ that I mentioned earlier). Also, 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 perspective of their own – and, in turn, this makes us more self-conscious.
You may have noticed these effects particularly strongly if you’ve ever held the intense gaze of a monkey or ape at a zoo: it is almost impossible not to be overcome by the profound sensation that they are a conscious being judging and scrutinising you. In fact, even looking at a portrait painting that appears to be making eye contact has been shown to trigger a swathe of brain activity related to social cognition – that is, in regions involved in thinking about ourselves and others.