Most people have dysfunctional eye posture. Squinting, looking down and gaze aversion are the culprits and are forms of social trauma that accumulate over our life. Refraining from low-grade squinting, widening the eyes, and relaxing the brow have many benefits and will change your outlook on life. Looking upwards more often strengthens the ocular muscles and conditions the nervous system to help you stop looking downward. Making prolonged eye contact with yourself in a mirror, or simply with points in space, will train your unconscious eye systems to be comfortable maintaining a fixed gaze.
Chapter 4: Hold a Steady, Upward Gaze with Wide Eyes
Eyes predate our breathing apparatus and are among the first organs. Most primitive animals and even some single-celled organisms have eyespots or patches of light-receptive proteins. Sight as we know it is made possible by the complex eyes and visual brain of mammals. Mammals are one of only a few classes of animals that use the eyes to communicate. Mammals visually inspect the eyes of other animals for social cues, often determining where the other animal is looking, what its mental state is like, and if the other animal is returning its gaze. In this chapter I will focus on three ways that subordination impoverishes the unconscious posture of our eyes: 1) squinting, 2) looking down, and 3) avoiding eye contact.
Open the Eyes Wide and Refrain from Squinting
Many mammals appraise the intent of other animals by their wideness of the eyes. Widened eyes are intense and bold, communicating fearlessness. Squinted eyes are defensive and associated with either attack or submissiveness. After brief eye contact your dog or cat may squint slightly and look at the floor to demonstrate submission. Humans squint socially for the same reasons as other mammals. It communicates unobtrusiveness and propriety.
When squinting happens too frequently, the muscles take on tension. Chronic squinting is another example of a submissive display that has the potential to lower our quality of life. The orbicularis oculi muscles are sphincters that encircle the eyes and close the eyelids. These muscles perform the squint. Of all the muscles on the surface of the body, they display the most conspicuous evidence of cumulative strain. Strain is easily perceived because the thinness of the skin surrounding the eye reveals discoloration, creasing, inflammation, and the accumulation of fluid. The fibers of your orbicularis oculi have become tonically contracted, maintaining a squinting posture throughout the day, without you being aware.
You can voluntarily stop yourself from contracting the muscles of course, and I think it is beneficial to spend time reestablishing control over it. Start in front of a mirror with your eyes as wide open as possible. As you watch your eyes in the mirror, you will notice that as your attention shifts away, the lower eyelids will become tense again due to force of habit. They are set to squint by default due to the actions of lower brain centers. You may notice that they twitch involuntarily when you think negative thoughts. In fact, they act as an anchor in the face that recruits wincing. You want to stop overusing these muscles and start using the underused levator palpebrae superioris, which opens the eyes wide. After completing the exercise below, you should notice that your eyes look wider and friendlier for several hours. Consistent practice will lead to continued improvement.
A. Eyeball in eye socket. Eye movement is controlled by ocular muscles and eye wideness by the levator palpebrae superioris. B. The orbicularis oculi muscle encircles the eye.
Widening the eyes increases the stress response. If you were hooked up to a machine that measured your sympathetic activity, it would spike every time you opened your eyes wide. Wide eyes make us feel like we are showing off and in turn, makes us breathe shallowly. The next two exercises will override this by asking you to pair paced breathing with widening the eyes. Performing the exercises will make it so that your body becomes accustomed to having the eyes wide without becoming stressed and breathing shallowly.
I believe that chronic squinting negatively affects emotional well-being. It is well documented that negative emotions generally cause squinting, and that positive emotions cause widening (Pease & Pease, 2004). Squinting is the continual elicitation of the defensive blink response which evolved to protect the eye from damage. Animals squint unconsciously when they feel the safety of their eyes is in jeopardy. Most mammals squint not only when fighting but when they anticipate a fight erupting. Heavy squinting is a form of trauma that maintains a defensive eyelid posture and disinhibits the blinking reflex. It is also interesting to note that mammals that feel threatened blink hard and fast, whereas mammals that feel comforted blink very slowly. Try to blink as slow as you can.
Squinting is strongly associated with the startle response, flinching and distressed breathing. Allowing unconscious brain centers to maintain tension in the eyelids sends messages to other threat centers in the brain, communicating to them that the current environment is potentially threatening to the eyes. This is ironic because in today’s world, our eyes are rarely threatened. In the ancestral past, it was adaptive for anxiety and fear to potentiate squinting but today, work and relationship stress are practically never indicative of impending damage to the eyes.
A. Man raising eyebrows; B and C. Women with apparent strain in the orbicularis oculi.
A 25 year-old friend told me: “See these bags under my eyes, I never had these before. I spent two years partying: staying out late, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, and drinking. They developed pretty abruptly and even after I stopped partying so hard, they never went away.” I assumed that this change in my friend was permanent, and I wondered what could cause it. It took me years to realize that this is caused by muscular strain from excessive squinting, and that it is completely reversible. Chapter 9 will show you how to apply compressive pressure to the muscles of the eyes and forehead to release them from tension. This is necessary to release the muscles and erase the dark circles. It is just as important though to practice widening your eyes without raising your eyebrows. Take a few minutes every day to perform exercise 1. Once you have the coordination you can perform it without a mirror.
Like rubbing the eyes and squinting them tightly, crying also encourages squinting to linger. When most people cry they look sad, their eyes become puffy, and they continue to squint for hours afterward. However, this is not a necessary part of crying. Immediately after the next time you cry, sit in front a mirror breathing diaphragmatically and widen your eyes for 5 minutes. For the rest of the day your eyes will feel light, carefree and wide. The deep squinting that takes place during crying sends blood to the muscles, activating them vigorously, making them more responsive to efforts at widening. One of the best ways to get a muscle to relax is to contract it to fatigue before giving it a chance to rest.
Humans are the only animals that cry. Evolutionary biologists have hypothesized that crying may represent a signal that asks for help intending to elicit altruistic behavior from others (Lutz, 2001). It has also been characterized as a reliable signal of appeasement and vulnerability because by blurring vision, it handicaps aggressive or defensive actions (Hasson, 2009). Crying may also serve to fatigue the facial muscles (especially the ones involved in squinting and sneering) enabling them to rest afterward.
Relaxing the orbicularis oculi will look and feel artificial at first. A few weeks of concerted effort combined with diaphragmatic breathing will fix this, making it your new default state. When I first attempted to stop squinting, I looked absurd and crazed. I looked like a sickly drug addict that had been startled. I looked like an uptight person who was trying too hard to appear calm. It took several weeks for the rings under my eyes and the general sleepless appearance to fade. With time though, the cheeks and the areas under the eyes begin to look less puffy, lose the discoloration, and appear healthier. When you are alone shoot for a “bug-eyed” look. Soon it will pass for normal. Once it does, do it in public. When you realize that your eyes remain wide open when speaking to others you know you have gotten the hang of it. Once you do, going back to squinting will feel like glaring.
Many military personnel and people suffering from PTSD have a tense, tired look that is centered around the eyes. Pictures taken before and after warzone deployment illustrate this dramatically. Many martial arts instructors and students squint, often have one eye more affected than the other, and have purple rings, dark circles and bags under their eyes. This is because walking into a martial arts studio without squinting sends a signal: “I am not afraid.” It is a shame that this sign of bravery is one that many people are too conscientious to allow themselves to make.
The most heinous villains in cartoons and storybooks are portrayed with dark creases under their eyes. On the other hand, people that are candidly carefree and cheerful are often wide-eyed. Many children have this look. When we see an animal or child with wide eyes we assume that it is innocent, angelic or perhaps even naïve because the eye muscles have no signs of cumulative strain. If a person’s eyes don’t advertise a history of defensive posturing we assume that they can negotiate their world without defensive thinking. Common phrases in the vernacular, like “sensitive eyes,” “gleam in the eye,” sparkling eyes,” “light in the eyes” or “twinkle in the eyes,” describe this look. Bring the sparkle back to your eyes by living with your eyes as wide as possible all of the time.
Think of the widest, most beautiful-eyed actors you know. Your eyes – any of our eyes – can look just like that. These actors may not have earned their ocular posture but rather fell into it due to positive or lenient early environmental circumstances. By following these neural reprogramming exercises, and the muscle massage and compression activities in Chapter 9, you can earn it. At first your efforts to keep your eyes wide may feel like they are coming from vanity, but at a certain point you will realize that they really come from an inner bravery.
Many people sleep with their faces tight, their teeth clenched and their eyelids clamped together. What state are your eyes in when you wake up? Most of us clamp our eyes shut throughout the night contracting the entire orbicularis oculi, including the portion that covers the upper cheeks. This is bad because it subjects the muscle to repetitive strain. You want to close your eyes with the upper lids. This includes the inner palpebral portion of the orbicularis oculi (which performs eye blinks), and the ciliary portion (which controls the rim of the eyelids). But to do this you need to learn how to contract them and then how to strengthen them. If your upper lids are not strong enough to close the eye on their own, the lower lids will tense up and raise to meet them. Because of this lopsided weakness, most people have to squint just to close their eyes. Every night before sleep practice shutting your eyes closed very tight, using only the upper lids. I call this “eyes wide shut.” If you do this properly, your eyelashes will be fully visible, and your eye area will be smooth. When you squint during sleep your eyelashes are swallowed up by your lids and the skin around the eyes will wrinkle. Practice closing the eyes without squinting every night for 2 minutes and your upper lids will become much stronger over the course of a few weeks.
A. Eyes closed by straining the lower lids; B. Eyes closed by modest contraction of the upper lids.
Having dry eyes made it very difficult for me to practice widening my eyes. In fact, you will find that the outer periphery of the eye that is normally covered when you squint becomes dry quickly when your eyes are wide. The area is not used to being uncovered. This dryness keeps you from widening your eyes for prolonged periods. Don’t let it. I recommend using eye drops before some of these exercises. However, it is important to be able to have wide eyes without using drops. Use the following simple technique to stimulate your tear glands and increase lubrication production for your eyes.
Expose Your Eyes to More Sunlight
Most people wince and squint heavily not only in direct sunlight, but also in indirect sunlight. Living indoors, we get a lot less sunlight than our ancestors did. Because we spend less time in direct sunlight, we squint much more in response to it than they would have. You may have noticed that people who work outdoors such as gardeners and construction workers often have wide eyes in direct sun.
Previously I squinted heavily when exposed to sunlight and I tried to avoid it entirely. My parents used to teasingly call me a “vampire.” After performing the following exercises I can be out of doors with my eyes completely open. Try to expose yourself to just the right amount of indirect sunlight so that you can bask in it wide-eyed. Use this method to gradually expose yourself to more and more sunlight without squinting.
Use sunglasses strategically to support your efforts to widen your eyes. If the sun is making you squint, put them on. If you are entering a social situation where you know you will squint, but you don’t want to, put them on. When you have them on, try to open your eyes as wide as possible. This will help train you to have wide eyes in social situations. You may look crazy, but don’t worry because others can’t see. After a few minutes of this, you can take the sunglasses off and your eyes will be large and peaceful.
Studies have shown significant relationships between depression and diminished exposure to the sun. Increased exposure to sunlight may ameliorate some forms of depression, and even common malaise (Even, 2008). Traditional forms of light therapy have shown great promise, but these use artificial light and do not address squinting, which I think plays a significant role. I think light therapy for depression would be more effective if patients breathed diaphragmatically and made an attempt to remain wide-eyed while exposed to the light source.
Refrain from Chronically Raising or Lowering the Brow
Most people cannot widen the eyes without raising the eyebrows. People also squint automatically when they let the eyebrows relax. This is because widening the eyes is nonsubmissive, but raising the eyebrows is submissive. Our lives have conditioned us to offer an eyebrow raise (which is submissive) as a peace offering to compensate for wide eyes. We basically trade one form of tension for another.
Raising the eyebrows, using a contraction of the frontalis muscle, is an appeasement display used by many mammals and most primates. Lowering the eyebrows in a frown is a dominance display. The procerus muscle pulls down the inner brows, which are then pulled together by the corrugator supercilii. These two actions induce furrows in the lower forehead. The brows are generally raised in submissive primates and lowered in dominant ones (Keating, 1985). Raised brows correlate with the “tendency to flee” during disputes among human children. People rate pictures of models with lowered brows as more dominant. It seems that monkeys feel the same way. Rhesus monkeys that are shown photographs of humans with raised and lowered eyebrows, submissively avoid the “gaze” of humans with lowered brows but happily gaze at humans with raised brows (Keating & Keating, 1982).Why are raised eyebrows self-subordinating? The paragraph from Caroline Keating (1985) below offers an explanation.
“Some expressions characterizing the dominance encounters of nonhuman primates involve eyebrow position. Generally, the brows are lowered on dominant or threatening individuals and raised on submissive or receptive individuals. Theorists have speculated on the evolutionary origins of facial gestures. Darwin believed that many expressions evolved from “serviceable associated habits” or preparatory responses associated with attack, defense, locomotion, or changes in visual or respiratory functioning. Several current theorists agree. Selective pressures apparently shaped certain elements of preparatory or supportive responses into displays that reflected the original impetus of the behavior. Thus, submissive brow raising may have evolved by originally aiding the visual scanning of animals in threatening circumstances. Because lowered brows protect the eyes from physical harm and facilitate near-focusing during attack, perhaps this behavior evolved as a dominance gesture by forecasting physical aggression.”
It is also thought that our propensity to raise and lower our brows may derive from ear movements used by our ancestors before they lost muscular control of their ears. Many specialists believe that raising the eyebrows is a throwback to the ear retraction action pattern that pulls the ears backwards. Ears back is a submissive display seen in many mammals (Chevalier-Skolnikoff, 2006). In contrast, lowering the brow likely has an origin in ear protraction which pushes the ears forward and is an assertive/aggressive display in many mammals. Like direct eye gaze, ears forward communicates that the sensory apparatus is focused for assertive or predatory action. Ears back, like eye contact avoidance, communicates that the animal is not focused on the animal in front of it.
A. Eyebrows lowered; B. Eyebrows raised; C. Cat on top with ears forward, cat on bottom with ears back.
The subordinate eye posture is raised eyebrows, and squinted eyes. The dominant one is lowered eyebrows. Performing either too frequently will lead to muscular strain and social contention. I believe the optimal posture is neutral eyebrows, and wide eyes. This involves relaxing the frontalis, and the orbicularis oculi, and lightly and infrequently contracting the levator palpebrae.
When I was in junior high school, my Dad asked me, “Jared, why do you always look timid and afraid in your yearbook pictures? Try not to make that face anymore tiger.” At the time, I did not know what he was talking about. I do now. I raised my eyebrows and squinted all the time to appear friendly. Eyebrow raising is the universal sign of curiosity and engagement. But I overused it without giving the muscles any rest. It appeared affable in the short run, but caused my face to become very tense and thus age rapidly in the long run. Use a brief eyebrow raise as an olive branch, but do not use extended eyebrow raises that go on for more than just a few seconds, those are white flags.
The stress that overtook me at age 17 caused me to lose the hair on my head rapidly. Ashamed of my bald spots, from 17 to 32 I wore a hat 7 days a week. The brim of my baseball hats obscured my upper visual field and for those 15 years trained me not to cast my eyes upward. All of my social repertoire involved looking down. When I turned 32 I shaved my head and stopped wearing hats. Suddenly I became aware that I had developed a behavioral blind spot for the entire space above me. This revelation galvanized me to train myself to look up.
We have all learned to habitually cast our gaze downwards. Eyes down is often intended to avoid eye contact, and usually signals either submission, disinterest, or fear. The vast majority of us do this customarily, even when alone. Most people’s nervous systems are so conditioned to looking down that even when they dream the eyes are pointed down. How dismal is that? Rarely looking up in the presence of others communicates to unconscious brain systems that we should avoid looking up for fear of reprimand or reprisal. The subject matter that makes a person glance at the floor is very telling, and a window into their insecurities. Looking down is tied neurologically to depression and anxiety through numerous brain pathways. It is another habit that stifles our soul on a neurological level. To overcome this, we can do two things: 1) train our nervous system to look upwards through practice, and 2) build the ocular muscles responsible for lifting the eyes. The exercise below is a great way to determine if your eye muscles, responsible for looking up (superior rectus), have atrophied due to disuse.
I used to look at the floor unconditionally when speaking. In fact, I would actually look at the ground around my feet for the majority of most conversations. Somehow I didn’t understand that this was a primary reason why I couldn’t keep a conversation going. Try to stop looking down when you talk to people. Try to look straight, even when not making eye contact. Then try to look upwards, above the eye-line during a conversation. It is generally discourteous to look directly above the other person’s head so look off to one side. As you look up during conversation, you might be concerned that the other person will become puzzled or suspicious of this. If you are not accustomed to looking up, not used to breathing deeply when doing it, or if your ocular muscles are weak, it is likely that the other person will be able to tell that it is unnatural for you. The only way for it to look natural is for you to practice.
People look up for many different reasons (Tubbs, 2009). With the head facing up it can communicate boredom, with the head facing down it can be coy and suggestive. Looking up when someone walks into a room can be interpreted as a sign of disdain or disregard. This is why people roll their eyes. Eye rolling is a nonverbal statement of superiority exclaiming: “THAT is beneath me.” You don’t want to use upward gaze with these as your motives. Some people look up when they are thinking, others do it to recall something from memory. Use these. Pretend that you are using the ceiling or sky as a canvass for your imagination to paint pictures of the topic of conversation. Looking up appears natural when you use the upper visual field to imagine things in the mind’s eye.
When you are standing at the register ordering fast food, look up at the menu on the wall calmly with wide eyes even if the restaurant employee is looking at you while you do so. Feel comfortable doing this while in line before you order, or even after. As you pass a stranger on the street, feel comfortable looking up. Gaze at the buildings, signs, telephone wires, clouds, trees, hills, and street lights. Looking up is our right. They are your eyes to use as you wish. The more you look up, the easier and more natural it is to look up. Also looking up engages the levator palpebrae superioris, and thus naturally widens the eyes.
Can You Look Yourself in the Eye? I Couldn’t
When I first started trying to make concerted eye contact with myself in a mirror, it was uncomfortable. It became apparent that eye contact with others was awkward for me because eye contact with myself was awkward. After spending time holding my own gaze I realized that instead of looking myself directly in the iris or pupil, I would usually look around the eyes rather than directly at them. Then I found that I was doing the same thing when I made eye contact with others. Sometimes I would look at the person’s cheeks, nose, mouth, ear, or even off into the space to the side of their head. After carefully monitoring my eye contact behavior I discovered that I virtually never looked anyone straight in the eye.
The most interesting thing about this is what would happen if I tried to sustain eye contact with myself. I would look into my own iris in the mirror for only a second or two and my eye would flinch. It would unconsciously dart away from making eye contact. This is because the brain areas (such as the frontal eye fields and the superior colliculi) devoted to controlling eye movements (saccades) were not habituated to continual eye contact. They were retreating out of fear. Everyone’s eyes do this autonomously to different extents, they do so more when stress levels are high, and the extent to which they do it is another marker of social rank. Some of our worst social experiences, when threat forced us to avert our gaze, have unconsciously traumatized the unconscious motor systems that control the eyes. We should all try to break this neurological reflex to glance away because it stunts our social growth.
A. Gorilla with wide eyes; B. A boy squinting and crying; C. Woman looking up and smiling
I knew that it was very important for me to spend a few minutes each day staring into my own pupils. When I did this my breath became shallow, so I started doing it with a breath metronome. Try looking into your own eyes without making a face, without raising your eyebrows, and without squinting. Moreover, focus on noticing and resisting the impulse to glance away. After pairing this activity with diaphragmatic breathing for a week (5 minutes a day), I could make unwavering eye contact with myself, and feel calm while doing it. After practicing it for a few weeks, I could do this with anyone. Now, I only look away when I choose to. I have a different relationship with myself now. Not only do I feel more confident, but I also feel more trustworthy.
One of the best times to perform this activity is right after you wake up. This is when the natural tension in the orbicularis oculi is the most apparent. Performing this activity in the morning will help you to situate your eye posture early helping you to keep your eyes wide throughout the day. You also might want to try this before you meet up with someone that you want to make a good impression on. Breathing usually becomes very shallow during eye contact. If you can breathe diaphragmatically during sustained eye contact with yourself, then you will be able to do it with other people. They will notice this and impute saint-like qualities to you.
Make Your Assertive Eye Contact Friendly
The study of oculesics (eye behavior) in animals provides context. Dominant wolves stare freely and casually at their pack mates who never stare at the dominant (Herman, 2017). The same is true with monkeys and apes. Chimpanzees and gorillas share gazes and use the eyes for communication frequently, just like most humans (Gomez, 1996). Chimps avoid eye contact during confrontations and physical struggles. However, they make concerted eye contact when peaceful and even when making up after a fight. Chimps and gorillas use eye contact constantly while interacting with members of their group but may charge at an individual from another group if it makes eye contact. Staring between unfamiliar apes is often interpreted as a threat signal. A human staring at a primate may elicit an attack response. Because orangutans are mostly solitary, they avoid both eye contact and direct gazing with other orangutans to forestall an attack (Gomez, 1996). Subordinate chimps make much less eye contact when they are around their dominant peers. Momentary eye contact with a dominant individual causes most primates to perform a subordination gesture (Sapolsky, 2005). But interestingly, reduced eye contact is not just a subordination display. It can also be a sign of dominance as when dominant chimpanzees refuse to make eye contact or even look at some of their “subjects.”
Eye contact behavior varies culturally. In many cultures eye contact is transitory because direct and prolonged contact is seen as a challenge or a test of nerves. In America averting the eyes is interpreted as a lack of confidence, certainty or truthfulness (Cruz, 2001). Americans associate sustained eye contact with sincere interest, forthrightness and attentiveness (Sadri et al., 2011). All things equal, people who make more eye contact are seen as more competent, likeable, and trustworthy. Of course, context is very important. During confrontation eye contact can be negative. However, in general the longer eye contact is maintained the greater the intimacy levels (Knapp, 2010). Liking generally increases as length and frequency of mutual gaze increases (Hogan & Stubbs, 2003). We are born expecting and craving eye contact. Infants prefer to look at faces that engage them in mutual eye contact (Farroni et al., 2002) and cry less when exposed to them (Lohaus et al., 2001).
As a child I made minimal eye contact with my parents, teachers and classmates. I didn’t want to challenge anyone, I didn’t want to make any waves, and usually I just wanted to be left alone so avoiding eye contact worked for me. Also most of my life I felt like an ugly person and I thought that by initiating eye contact I was forcing someone to look at an ugly face. Throughout my adolescence and young adulthood I paid very little attention to eye contact in general, and because I did not attend to it, I was clumsy with it. The first step is becoming conscious of your own tendencies and inclinations. Do you make eye contact with people on television? If you don’t then it is likely that you have an aversion. I didn’t, at all, until I recently started forcing myself to. At first it was intimidating, now it has become second nature. A great way to make eye contact effortless is to always look the characters on the TV screen, straight in the eye. Over time this will also make you better at processing emotions and will increase your empathy quotient.
Making more frequent eye contact has opened doors for me, allowing me to meet new people, prolong conversations, build rapport, and prove to others that I am not a pushover. On the downside, I am sometimes aware that the person with whom I am talking may feel uncomfortable and have a lurking suspicion that my eye contact is a way to assert myself. This seems to be an intrinsic tradeoff. I have been trying to figure out how to make eye contact in a way that is welcoming and not domineering. It seems that the most affable type of eye contact is seemingly-natural eye contact that appears as if it takes no thought. However, it takes time, practice and thinking for eye contact to become uncontrived. After some trial and error, I came across some helpful heuristics:
1) Make as much eye contact with them as they make with you. You might want to look away first but then when you reinstate eye contact feel secure in the fact that it is now their turn to look away. Keep in mind that rigidly keeping track of every glance takes away from the natural flow. Take turns, be fair but don’t sell yourself short.
2) The more expressive you are, the longer you can maintain your gaze without upsetting the other person. If you gesticulate, raise your brow momentarily or build a slow-growing smile, you can maintain your gaze without coming across as overbearing or intense.
3) Do not look down when you look away from the other person’s eyes. When you look at the floor after making an eye contact, it can be taken as a sign of defeat and often interrupts the flow of the conversation. Rather than looking down, try to look to the side of the person at the eye line, this will make them feel that you are listening, have remained engaged, and are ready to reinstate eye contact.
4) Look someone in the eyes, and wait until their eyes meet yours to start talking. If done in a friendly manner this can motivate someone to connect with you. Be sensitive to how the other person is responding to your extended eye contact. They may feed off of it, or they may actively avoid it. Many experts in nonverbal communication recommend trying to make eye contact 60% of the time during conversation.
5) Try looking from the person’s left eye to the right one without breaking eye contact. You can do this slowly, or quickly. When in a group look each person in the eye while you talk. Also try making eye contact, blinking and immediately reinstating eye contact without ever looking away. These communicate to others that you are skilled at eye contact.
6) I think that it is a profitable thing to ask your friends and acquaintances about how they use eye contact. I have told several friends: “Hey, I have been trying to make more eye contact recently. I want you to be comfortable with this. How do you feel about the dynamics of how we have been making eye contact?” I have even gone as far as saying things like: “Let’s work together on using more eye contact so that we can get better at it.”
In apes and monkeys subordinate individuals look at and pay attention to dominant members of the group unless the dominant member is looking at them. Dominant members visually monitor others more freely, but direct far less visual attention to subordinate animals, unless they are staring them down (Chance, 1967). The state of affairs is similar for humans. The visual dominance ratio (VDR) is a concept in psychology used to quantify eye contact behavior in people (Dovidio & Ellyson, 1985). A person’s VDR is calculated by taking the percentage of time that one spends looking into another person’s eyes while speaking and dividing that number by the percentage of time that person spends looking into another’s eyes while listening. VDR = (% eye contact while speaking) / (% eye contact while listening). If you look into another’s eye 60% of the time while you are speaking, and 60% of the time while you are listening then your VDR will come out to 1.00. If you tend to look at someone when you speak, but then look away when they speak to you, your VDR will be greater than 1.00. Often this conveys that you think what you have say is more important. Conversely, if you avoid eye contact when you are speaking, but make eye contact when others speak to you this will generate a VDR lower than 1.00, and is associated with subordination.
Studies have shown that when people speak to their peers and colleagues, on average, they tend to have a VDR around 1.00. When they speak to experts or high status individuals the VDR drops, and when they speak to people lower in social status the VDR rises. Until the last year my VDR must have been very low. I found it very difficult to maintain eye contact as I formulated my sentences. I just didn’t have the processing capability to do both things at once. The exercise below cured this. I think the upstanding, genteel strategy is to aim for a VDR around 1.00 with everyone regardless of their age or status. Try to use eye contact to show the other person that you are curious about their facial responses to the topic of conversation. It has been my experience that people find friendly, nonsubordinate/nondominant eye contact validating and endearing.
I recently attempted to increase the amount of eye contact that my 8-year-old cat makes with me. First, I would hold him gently in a way that allowed him to rest his neck and keep it still. I would move my face close to his and make eye contact with him while petting and hugging him. While breathing calmly, I would look into both his eyes. I would feed him afterward. This dramatically increased the frequency at which he sought eye contact. He even began to seek it out when he wasn’t hungry. At first, he was always the one to squint, look down, or break eye contact communicating nondominance. But I fostered his ability to make sustained contact by not staring him down, and looking away about half the time. To stop him from squinting during eye contact I massaged the orbits of his eyes. Within a few weeks, he stopped squinting, and his eyes were wider all the time. Now he actively seeks wide-eyed eye contact from everyone. I believe that it has increased his social intelligence because now he is constantly gathering information from the faces of people as he interacts with them. As with us, more frequent eye contact inevitably improves his predictions, decisions and mental modeling of social situations. If you refuse to take in the data, you won’t be able to use it to recognize and learn social patterns. I have watched my cat become more personable. It also greatly increased our bond. Studies have shown that extended eye contact between a dog, and its owner modulates the excretion of oxytocin (a neuromodulator known for its role in bonding) in both animals (Nagasawa et al., 2015). In fact, making more eye contact with my cat has helped me to make more eye contact with humans.
A. Friends talking with eye contact; B. Eye, iris and pupil; C. Couple making intimate eye contact.
From Kindergarten through junior high I could not hold any eye contact with my female classmates. Unbeknownst to me this was likely the main reason why I had so much trouble talking to girls. Most of the boys in my elementary classes had the same problem. There was one boy who in first through fifth grade, spent every recess with the girls. They all adored him, and I never understood why. I also never understood why he would routinely roll his eyes up into his head every few minutes. I get it now. He would roll his eyes in an effort to engage the muscles that widen the eyes. The wide eyes are what allowed him to keep sustained eye contact with the girls. His eyes were as wide, or wider than theirs and so they welcomed his gaze. There are reciprocal relationships between having wide eyes, looking up, and making eye contact. If you can widen your eyes and make looking up comfortable using the exercises above, you will find that others will actually seek out eye contact from you.
Use Sensory Deprivation to Unmask Neurotic Activity
I believe that the brain’s eye-control centers are involved in stress and anxiety. You should be able to sense pressure to keep glancing around neurotically, and this comes from eye-motor centers that act below the level of conscious awareness. This restlessness makes it difficult for you to maintain eye contact and makes it hard to fixate on anything if other people are watching you. I think that the best way to retrain these centers is to implement fixed gaze practices as in the activity below.
Becoming aware of your eye behavior in complete darkness will demonstrate to you that a good proportion of your eye movement is high-strung and unnecessary. At night time, turn off all of the lights in your home and enter a closet or bathroom and lay down on the floor. Do whatever you can to make this area completely dark. Being in pitch black makes some part deep down inside of you realize that absolutely no one can see your face, expressions or eye movements. Remember how your submissive signaling diminished when you took that walk around the block while pretending to be invisible? Complete darkness allows you this invisibility. No one can be offended by how relaxed you appear. This allows you to relax your face and eyes like never before. It also allows you to open your eyes very wide without fear. You will notice your eyes dart around in the dark. They display an intense, agitated tendency to move quickly without your conscious deliberation. Simply observing this and practicing sustained gaze allows you to reduce this intensity.
In absolute darkness you will also be able to see phosphenes, which are colored shapes that are produced by your visual system. These may take the form of dots, stars, lines, static, circles or various other shapes. This visual activity will be accentuated if you lightly rub your eyes. It is a type of background noise that is usually not noticeable, yet always ongoing. When the lights are on this activity is put to work helping you to make perceptual distinctions. When the lights are off it hits a stumbling block, amounting to a low-level form of hallucination. While observing these phosphenes in the dark you are actually looking at the default activity in the “early” visual cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for holding geometric arrangements of visual information inside a coordinate system that corresponds to the arrangement of light receptive cells in the eyes’ retinas. Early visual cortex interacts with “later” cortical areas to both perceive your environment and also to construct imaginary imagery in the mind’s eye. These phosphenes are the rudimentary building blocks of your imagination.
I believe that these phosphenes play a role in driving anxious thought. Notice when these phosphenes flash abruptly and calm your reaction to this. You may notice that they flash when you look straight, and keep you from maintaining a fixed gaze. You may also notice that they flash in the corner of your eye. When they flash like this in the periphery of your vision I believe they may be reminding you to scan for potential threats that are to the side of you, or behind you. When I first started doing this the phosphene activity appeared sinister and frightening. I even saw flashes of scenes from horror movies. They contributed strongly to the feeling of being unsafe in the dark. This may have also been the case for my cat Niko. He cried like a kitten in the dark closet the first few times, but now he will join me of his own volition. Notice your reactions and try to bring peace to the phosphene activity as well as to your conscious and unconscious responses to it by pairing the experience with diaphragmatic breathing. After doing this exercise twice for 5 minutes I never again saw any frightful apparitions.
In absolute darkness I feel like a slimy, gelatinous sea slug that has been removed from all danger. The complete vacancy of visual stimulus lends my eyes the courage they need to grow wide. I can feel the squinting contraction release in the same way that the sea slug we discussed in Chapter 2 releases its gill. This phenomenon is also a bit like eyestalk extension in snails. When you touch a snail its eyestalk retracts. The eye inverts within the eyestalk and travels down toward the head. It blinds the snail but is an essential defensive reflex meant to protect the eyes. After several seconds when the snail starts to feel safe again the eye slowly everts, the eyestalk reaches full length and the eyes pop out at the top. Use exercise 12 above to develop fearless, wide eyes, and to fully extend your “eyestalks.”
You can also do exercise 12 with a pair of noise reducing ear muffs (preferable to noise canceling headphones). These are designed to protect hearing from loud sounds. Try to find one with a noise reduction rating of around 30 decibels. When you put these on you will be able to hear the ringing in your ears (tinnitus). This is the default activity in your early auditory cortex. When I first heard the ringing it was very upsetting and I abhorred the noise. Many people feel this way, which is unfortunate because whether you are conscious of it or not, it is always there. I found that the practice of breathing diaphragmatically and listening to my own tinnitus reduced its volume and made it far less emotionally disquieting. Paced, diaphragmatic breathing will quickly help you come to peace with being alone, in complete darkness, with nothing but the background noise of your own visual and auditory systems.
This last exercise puts most of the routines from this chapter together into a single exercise that you can perform while watching television.
These exercises may seem strange, forced, and almost comical. Remember though, when you perform them you are coactivating behavioral subroutines that, because of social constraints, are ordinarily never coactivated together. By pairing this with diaphragmatic breathing you are reeducating your nervous system that they are safe, making that combination of subroutines possible. The more you do it the more probable it is to arise spontaneously in the future and eventually become a fixed part of your personality. You will almost never have the opportunity to make prolonged eye contact, looking up, with wide eyes, breathing diaphragmatically in this reality we live in. To build optimal behaviors into our repertoire we must create artificially ideal worlds to practice within.
Squinting, looking down, and glancing away all have muscular components. In the next chapter we will discuss repetitive muscular strain in detail and consider the panoply of negative effects it has on us.
Chapter 4 Bullet Points
- Squinting, looking down and gaze aversion are forms of trauma that fracture our composure, but that can be easily rehabilitated
- Refraining from low-grade squinting, widening the eyes, and relaxing the brow have many benefits and will change your outlook on life.
- Looking upwards more often strengthens the ocular muscles and conditions the nervous system to help you stop looking downward.
- Making prolonged eye contact with yourself in a mirror, or simply with points in space, will train your unconscious eye systems to be comfortable maintaining a fixed gaze.