October 2017

The Medicine

by Karen Hitchcock

The eyes have it

How is it possible for an emotion to be expressed in an eyeball?

I’ve been thinking about eyes a lot lately, mainly because mine are defective. I am what they call a “high myope”, so without really strong glasses or contact lenses the world ends 10 centimetres in front of my face. Last year I had a threatened retinal detachment, and just recently I scratched my cornea on the bedside table while pawing for my glasses in the dark. Ophthalmologists are the only doctors for whom I semi-willingly become a patient, because I’m terrified of going blind. I couldn’t read books. I couldn’t read people.

Wordless eye contact is undoubtedly a richly communicative exchange. If we are to believe the poets and popular lore it’s all about the eyes. And it does feel as if it is. But how is it possible for an emotion to be expressed in an eyeball? Unless it’s true that we have a “soul” and that this soul is visible in our eyes, which I wish I could believe. Besides the changing aperture of the pupil, the eyeball itself is essentially inert. So if not from the eye then from where does the love, hate, pain or fear pour? What do we actually read in each other?

Of course when we look at each other we see more than a pair of isolated eyeballs. Even if limited to the eye region of the face we have eyebrows, eyelids, and all the intricate skin-bound structures around the eye that contribute to non-verbal emotional expression. But the communicative capacities of the eyeball alone have received a lot of attention from researchers.

Of all the world’s animals, humans have by far the largest visible sclera (white of the eye) surrounding the dark iris. This enables us to accurately judge the direction of someone’s gaze, even at a distance, and to know what captures their attention. Lots of white indicates fear or surprise. There are the variations in blink rate and gaze duration to decode. Pupils widen in states of fear or sexual arousal, and current research seems to confirm the ancient belief that we unconsciously find large pupils attractive. How did the ancients know this and believe it so faithfully that women risked blindness by bucketing belladonna into their eyeballs?

An online test developed at the University of Cambridge (search for “Social Intelligence Test”) measures your ability to interpret another’s emotional state. The test presents you with 36 separate photos of faces cropped down to just a few centimetres above and below the eyes. For each photo, you choose between four emotions (jealousy, fear, suspicion and happiness, for example). One emotion is correct and the rest are wrong. Apparently, a score above 30 correctly identified emotions indicates a high emotional sensitivity, and one below 22 might explain certain challenges you’ve faced in interpersonal relationships. Some of the cropped faces are taken from centuries-old portraits, so it’s not like the scientists asked the subjects how they actually felt. But what’s the alternative? Faces are rich with information that we interpret consciously and unconsciously. As with a spoken language, how we produce and read these signs is influenced by our culture, but there seems to be a baseline language nonetheless.

Generally, direct eye contact is valued in Western culture. But it turns out that “direct eye contact” is a game with intricate rules we’re not taught (beyond the basics) and understand only instinctively, if at all. Scientists have attempted to define this unspoken language of eye contact, and I read a lot of this work before a clinic last week and found myself increasingly self-conscious: watching how I watch. They say that your “eye contact” becomes “staring” when your blink rate slows and your eyes fix. I have spent a lot of time staring. You’re not supposed to look directly into people’s eyes for too long (experts offer varying time limits) or it’s interpretable as a threat or a come-on, and except for limited circumstances (a stand-off, the bedroom) it is socially inappropriate. Instead, I read, one’s eyes should casually flit around the other person’s eye area. Not the lips (sexual). Not the forehead (threatening). Japanese kids are taught to stare at their teacher’s neck. I longed for such a rule. In the clinic I had my computer, my notes, and the timing of my blink rate and gaze sites to help me avoid my habitual, socially treacherous direct gaze. I wanted my patients to feel at ease, that I was attentive and non-judgemental, not some threatening sexual predator. I didn’t want to invade.

Eye contact requires high-level cognitive resources and it can therefore inhibit our ability to think – why in conversation it’s common to look away momentarily when trying to formulate a complex thought or recall something half-remembered. Media trainers advise you to focus on the bridge of an interviewer’s nose to prevent distraction. Freud sat behind his patients. We avoid the eyes to harness our resources.

American comedian Louis CK wouldn’t buy his daughters mobile phones because, he said, they arrested the development of empathy and kindness by removing the part of communication that is the real-time witnessing of someone’s reaction. He gave the example of a child calling someone “fat” face to face versus in a text: seeing the other person’s pain made the name-caller feel bad, whereas the texter simply felt victorious. Perhaps with increasingly sophisticated technology the ability to interpret another’s response will cease to be socially valuable or necessary. Why can’t computers do it for us, if the interpretive “rules” have been so clearly mapped? Perhaps it will be a big relief to us all, given that looking into a fellow human being’s eyes is evidently so socially risky and intellectually taxing. Given that looking has become more invasion than inquiry.

Karen Hitchcock

Karen Hitchcock is a doctor and writer. She is the author of a collection of short fiction, Little White Slips, and the Quarterly Essay Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly.

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