View to a Kill. How the Brain Processes Eye Contact


It’s not polite to stare – as we’ve often been told, and we can all remember at least a few unpleasant times where we found ourselves drawing multiple stares as we enter a room. What makes that experience so particularly unpleasant? So well known is this phenomenon that it has made its way into the lexicon. When feeling offended, you may give someone the evil eye –  or a look that could kill.

There’s a more positive side to this phenomenon as well. The way in which we make eye contact also has a longtime association with romance or with passion. You might remember a time when you met your significant other and say you got lost in their eyes – or you might determine if a partner is romantically interested if they happen to be “making eyes at us” at a social gathering. Maybe you’ve described yourself as having eyes for them.

We Have Evolved to React to Eyes

It goes without saying that the gaze plays a significant social role but we are hardly the only species that does this. Stares serve as important signals of intent in nearly every social animal, used to broadcast an unspoken warning to stay away – to imply dominance and even courtship. Changes in eye color can even happen as two animals are locked in a gaze – as they maintain it or try to avert it. Through evolution, even a number of moths, butterflies, and fish began to develop eyelike stimuli known as “eyespots” for misleading and warding off predators – such as the tiger swallowtail larvae with eyespots on its back that make it resemble a predatory snake and frightens away birds.

Like so many types of animals, research suggests that humans are prewired to react to eyes in nature. As infants, we are intrigued by the eyes of other people, more likely to respond to them over just about anywhere else in an individual’s expression. Eye contact is also a crucial component of the bonding process between a mother and her infant. As civilization developed, we came to use eye makeup in a strategic way – emphasizing the eyes and amplifying their effectiveness.

Human gazing patterns are essential for regulating the degree of intimacy we share with other people as well as in managing the niceties for taking our turn while making conversation. Generally, we spend a lot more time looking at other people as we listen to what they have to say, rather than when we speak to them. In a typical conversation, we use looking behavior in order to signal the moment we desire to speak, as well as when we choose to give our partner a moment to get a word in. Being successful in our use of eye contact is typically correlated with a positive outcome, such as being successful at speed dating or with providing a good impression to potential employers when going on a job interview. However, we are often made uncomfortable when the degree of direct eye contact happens too frequently or spans a prolonged period of time.

Your Gaze is a Significant Social Signal

Eye contact, also known as the “mutual gaze,” among researchers whose field of interest is nonverbal communication, can sometimes be disconcerting, since it often signals that a given individual staring at you has the intention of engaging in a behavior that incorporates you. Their intended behavior could be welcome or even exciting but could just as easily be unwelcome and terrifying, but whatever the case may be, the stranger’s gaze signals our brains to create an appropriate response. There are also those situations when it becomes difficult to read the other person and their intention – and that’s when we notice a palpable discomfort, appropriately getting creeped out.

There is, of course, sufficient evidence that the gaze is also quite arousing.

The heart rate, among other physiological indicators of when we feel heightened arousal, builds up as we maintain eye contact. The same goes for other primates. There have been field studies conducted with people stared down by strangers – and the data reveals that when under the watchful eye of other people, we walk faster, tend to fidget more often, and even do things as drastic as driving through intersections at a more rapid speed. Yet another study provides evidence that hostile eye contact could play a factor in instigating dog attacks.

So, not so unsurprisingly, those high sensation seekers who prefer feeling elevated levels of arousal tend to do better with maintaining eye contact when it comes to talking to strangers than their low sensation seeking counterparts.

Eye Contact Intensifies the Interactions We Have

How can making eye contact impact your emotions?

A good analogy to keep in mind is to think of how you react to music as its volume goes higher.  If you’re listening to music on the radio that you happen to like, you would probably turn up the volume so you could revel in it further. By the same token, if your roommate or neighbor is listening to music they enjoy and they turn up the volume, then the experience becomes increasingly more unpleasant for you.

Therefore, we engage in higher levels of eye contact during both our intensely positive and our intensely negative interactions with other people. Think of the different feelings you may get –  of passion as well as electricity that seem to bubble over, augmented by prolonged, consistent eye contact made between two lovers – compared to the rising tension of that pre-fight “stare-down” that two boxers do just before the match, or when there’s high-eye contact shouting matches on the field between sports managers and referees.

New research has confirmed that in settings where the interviewer bestows praise, the interviewee’s opinion of that person builds up further, the more frequently the interviewer maintains eye contact with them. In a case where the interviewer delivers negative feedback or even insults the interviewee, however, a substantial degree of eye contact can make the interviewee like the interviewer even less than they did at the start of the interview.

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