“The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter—often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter—in the eye.” — Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)
Eyes are essential for animals to perceive their surrounding environment and were among the first organs to evolve, even predating the development of gills and lungs. The vast majority of animals have eyes. Even some single-celled organisms have eyespots or patches of light-receptive proteins. However, mammals are one of only a few classes of animals that use their eyes to communicate.
Mammals visually inspect other animals’ eyes for social cues, often determining where the other animal is looking, what its mental state is, and whether the other animal is returning its gaze. Humans, more than any other animal, use the eyes to communicate intention and emotion. How you look at others and how you use your eyes affects you on a deep psychological level. By modifying the involuntary patterns of your gazing behavior in the ways described in this chapter, you can foster your sense of well-being, improve the quality of your relationships, and ensure your social interactions are positive and empowering.
This chapter focuses on four ways that subordination unconsciously impoverishes our eyes’ posture: 1) squinting, 2) raising the eyebrows, 3) looking down, and 4) avoiding eye contact. All four are relatively simple to change with the application of consistent effort. As you read on, you’ll come to understand both how these behaviors can be harmful and why it is worth investing your time and energy in changing them.
Many mammals appraise the intent of other animals by the wideness of their eyes. Widened eyes are intense and bold, communicating fearlessness. Squinted eyes are defensive and associated with either attack or submissiveness. For instance, you may notice your dog or cat squinting slightly and looking at the floor after brief eye contact. They do this to demonstrate unobtrusiveness. Humans squint in social situations for much the same reason—it communicates propriety. However, when squinting happens too frequently, the muscles take on tension. Chronic squinting, like shallow breathing, is another example of a suboptimal display that has the potential to reduce our standard of living.
Squinting is controlled by the orbicularis oculi—rings of muscle (technically, “sphincters”) that encircle the eyes and open and close the eyelids. Of all the muscles on the surface of the human body, the orbicularis oculi display the most conspicuous evidence of cumulative strain. This is because the skin surrounding the eye is unusually thin and easily reveals discoloration, creasing, inflammation, and the accumulation of fluid. These conditions are caused by chronic squinting and lead to purple rings, dark circles, and bags under the eyes. The muscle fibers of your orbicularis oculi have become tonically contracted, maintaining a squinting posture throughout the day without you being aware. The solution to this postural eye strain is to train yourself to widen your eyes so that they squint less frequently and to a lesser degree.
The activity below will ask you to position yourself in front of a mirror with your eyes as wide as possible. You will realize that it is not easy to keep them wide and that your lower eyelids become tense as your thoughts drift to other topics. That’s the force of habit reasserting itself. Your eyes are accustomed to squinting by default due to the actions of lower brain centers. You may even notice that they twitch involuntarily when you think negative thoughts. Squinting acts as an anchor in the face that recruits wincing.
Once you have observed the habitual tension for yourself, you are ready to start changing it. Your goal is to stop overusing the orbicularis oculi muscles and, instead, start relying on the underused levator palpebrae superioris instead, which opens the eyes wide. After completing the exploratory activity below, you should notice that your eyes look wider and friendlier for several hours.
Illustration 4.1: A. Orbicularis oculi muscle encircles the eye and controls squinting; B. Eyeball in the eye socket. Eye movement is controlled by ocular muscles surrounding the eye. Eye wideness is controlled by the levator palpebrae superioris above it.
A friend once said to 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 abruptly. And even after I stopped partying so hard, they never went away.” Most of us have creases under our eyes, and I had only seen them get worse with time, so I assumed that the change in my friend’s appearance was permanent. But his comments did start me wondering about the underlying biological reason for changes in the skin around our eyes. It took me years to realize that the problem is caused by muscular strain from excessive squinting and years more to confirm that it is completely reversible. Chapter 9 will show you how to massage the muscles of the eyes and forehead, which is necessary to fully release the muscles and erase the dark circles. But this chapter will help you change how you use the muscles surrounding your eyes during daily life, which is arguably more important.
At first, you may feel these eye exercises are driven by vanity, which is uncomfortable for most of us, but at a certain point, you will realize that your real motive is inner bravery. Reducing the appearance of eye strain is merely an aesthetic side effect of widening your eyes. Far more important are the effects on emotional prosperity. It is well documented that negative emotions generally cause squinting and that positive emotions cause eye-widening.1
Squinting itself is never an emotionally neutral activity. 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. (Imagine pushing your way through face-height tree branches, for instance. You will feel your eyes instinctively narrow.) That is why most mammals squint when fighting or when they anticipate a fight erupting. Heavy squinting is a form of trauma that maintains a defensive eyelid posture and disinhibits the blinking reflex. Mammals that feel threatened blink hard and fast, whereas mammals that feel safe blink very slowly. Practicing a few slow blinks will help you widen your eyes and develop a calmer blinking pattern
As you might have guessed, the startle response and distressed breathing both heighten squinting. They are all part of the same neurological circuit. Allowing unconscious brain centers to maintain tension in the eyelids sends messages to other threat centers in the brain, communicating 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.
Your stress response also spikes when you widen your eyes during social situations. If you were hooked up to a machine that measured your sympathetic nervous system activity, it would spike every time you opened your eyes all the way. Wide eyes give us a sensation of showing off, and that, in turn, makes us breathe shallowly in an attempt not to be too forward or noticeable. Exercise 1 overrides this by asking you to pair paced breathing with widening the eyes. Performing the exercises herein will make it so that your body becomes accustomed to having the eyes wide without breathing shallowly.
Illustration 4.2: Man raising eyebrows; B & C. Women with apparent strain in the orbicularis oculi.
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 of a mirror breathing diaphragmatically, and widen your eyes for five full minutes. For the rest of the day, your eyes will feel light, carefree, and wide instead of compressed and miserable.
The reason for this is that crying actually involves deep squinting and a full healthy contraction of the orbicularis oculi rather than the continuous partial contraction that usually takes place. This sends blood to the muscles and makes them more responsive to efforts at widening. As we will discuss in depth in later chapters, one of the best ways to get a muscle to relax is to contract it to fatigue it and then give it a chance to rest fully.
This means that crying is good for you as long as you help yourself recover in a healthy, emotionally uplifting way. That fits with its functional purpose. Humans are the only animals that cry, and biologists have hypothesized that it might serve a communicative function that asks for help and elicits altruistic behavior from others.2 It has also been characterized as a reliable signal of appeasement and vulnerability because, by blurring our vision, it handicaps aggressive or defensive actions.3 I think that, more than anything else, crying serves to fatigue the respiratory muscles and the facial muscles (especially the ones involved in squinting and sneering), enabling them a period of respite 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. I appeared like a sickly drug addict that had been startled or like an uptight person trying too hard to appear calm. At times, I felt my face was a leering death mask. It took several weeks for the rings under my eyes and the general sleepless appearance to fade. With time, the cheeks and the areas under the eyes began to look less puffy, lose their 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 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 dark circles under their eyes. This is because walking into a martial arts studio without squinting sends the signal: “I am not afraid.” Unfortunately, this sign of bravery is one that many people are too conscientious to allow themselves to make. This is also a case of art following life. The most heinous villains in cartoons and storybooks are portrayed with dark creases under their eyes. On the other hand, people who are candidly carefree and cheerful are often portrayed as wide-eyed. Many children look this way naturally, and their appearance is mimicked by artists and animators trying to create an impression of innocence, angelic virtue, or even naïveté. It usually works, as in the case of many Disney characters, because what we perceive are eye muscles with no signs of cumulative strain. If a person’s eyes don’t advertise a history of defensive posturing, we subconsciously assume that they can negotiate the 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 effect. Bring the brightness back to your eyes by living with your eyes wide all the time.
Think of actors with especially wide eyes. Your eyes can look just like theirs. The actors you’re thinking of may not have earned their ocular posture, having just fallen into it due to favorable or lenient early environmental circumstances. By following the neural reprogramming exercises in this chapter, along with the muscle massage and compression exercises in Chapter 9, you can earn it. In fact, all the exercises from Program Peace zero in on optimal microhabits that you may not have fallen into but you can, instead, earn through repetition.
Another aspect of the squinting problem worthy of our attention is squinting while sleeping. Many people sleep with their faces screwed up tight, their teeth clenched, and their eyelids clamped together. To determine whether you fall into this category, start by asking yourself this: What state are my eyes in when I wake up? Most of us clench them shut during the night, contracting the entire ring of the orbicularis oculi, from the cheeks to the eyelids. This amounts to hours and hours of low-grade, repetitive strain.
To avoid nighttime muscular strain in your face, you will need to close your eyes with the upper lids rather than the lower ones. This involves contracting the inner palpebral portions of the orbicularis oculi (which perform eye blinks) as well as the ciliary portions (which control the rims of the eyelids). To do this, you need to learn how to contract those muscles and then strengthen them with consistent practice. If your upper lids are not strong enough to close the eyes on their own, the lower lids will rise to meet them, introducing the strain you are trying to avoid. Most of us have weak upper lids, which is why we end up squinting whenever we close our eyes.
When you squint during sleep, your eyelashes are swallowed up by your lids and the skin around the eyes will wrinkle. However, if you close your eyes using your upper lids, your eyelashes will be fully visible and your eye area will be smooth. Every night before sleep, practice shutting your eyes very tightly using only the upper lids. I think of this as “eyes wide shut.” When you start to use your upper lids, the muscles may flutter and waver because they are weak. This will subside with time. Repeat the exercise until the muscles develop the tone they need for the action to become second nature. Enjoy the more relaxed sleep that results.
Illustration 4.3: Eyes closed by straining the lower lids; B. Eyes closed by modest contraction of the upper lids.
One common problem with eye-widening exercises is dry eyes. You will find that the outer periphery of the eyeball, which is normally covered when you squint, feels dry when exposed to the air. This is normal and happens only because the area is not used to being uncovered. Don’t let the dryness keep you from widening your eyes for prolonged periods. You can use eye drops a few times a week and then gradually transition off them. Another helpful option is to use the following simple technique to naturally stimulate your tear glands to lubricate your eyes.
If you perform these exercises, you will gradually develop the ability to keep your eyes open wider. Bright light is another hindrance. The next section will address how to keep your eyes wide even outside on a sunny day.
Most people wince and squint heavily in both direct and indirect sunlight. Living most of our lives indoors, we get far less exposure to the sun than our ancestors did. We have become acclimated to dim environments, which causes heavy squinting when we finally make it outside. You may have noticed that people with full-time outdoor jobs, such as gardeners and construction workers, often have no trouble keeping their eyes wide when standing in direct sun.
The good news is that squinting in the sun is merely a habit and one that can be completely unlearned with practice. After performing the following exercises, you will be able to comfortably be outdoors with your eyes completely open. The most basic exercise is to increase your exposure: try to position yourself in just the right amount of indirect sunlight to let you bask in it wide-eyed. After a while, you’ll be able to expose yourself to brighter and brighter light without squinting.
Studies have shown a significant relationship between depression and diminished exposure to sunlight. The opposite is also true: increased exposure to sunlight may ameliorate some forms of depression and even common malaise.4Traditional forms of light therapy, which use bright artificial lights, have shown great promise. I believe that this therapy is efficacious because it teaches patients to become comfortable, without squinting and tightening the face, in the presence of bright light. Unfortunately, this form of clinical therapy does not explicitly address squinting. However, you can, and using the sun, you can do it at no cost. Pairing bright light exposure with diaphragmatic breathing while remaining wide-eyed could help make you a “brighter,” happier person.
It can be hard to maintain your new wide-eyed facial posture in social situations. One way to support your practice is through the strategic use of sunglasses. If the sun is making you squint, put them on. If you enter a social situation in which you know you are likely to squint, put them on. Then, with the sunglasses on, open your eyes as wide as possible. This will train you to feel comfortable keeping your eyes wide while speaking to and interacting with others. By the time you choose to take the sunglasses off, your eyes will be large and peaceful.
The next thing to focus on is the position of your eyebrows. Most of us cannot widen our eyes without raising the brow, and many people squint automatically when they let their eyebrows relax. This is because widening the eyes is not submissive while raising the eyebrows is, and we are conditioned by social experience to balance one with the other. We offer submissively raised brows as a peace offering to compensate for wide eyes. The problem, of course, is that in doing so, we are simply trading one form of tension for another.
The biological details are interesting. The eyebrows are raised using a contraction of the frontalis muscle, which controls the movement of the forehead. Among many mammals—and primates especially—it is an appeasement display, while lowering the eyebrows in a frown is a display of dominance. The frown uses the procerus muscle to pull down the inner brows, which are then drawn together by the corrugator supercilii. Together, those two movements induce furrows in the lower forehead.
Evidence regarding the social effects of eyebrow posture is compelling. The brows are generally raised in primates low in the hierarchy and lowered in those high in the hierarchy.5 Raised brows correlate with the “tendency to flee” during disputes among human children. People rate pictures of models with lowered brows as more dominant than models with relaxed or raised brows. Monkeys seem to feel the same way. Rhesus monkeys submissively avoid the gaze of humans with lowered brows but gaze at humans with raised brows for prolonged periods.6 The question is: Why are raised eyebrows subordinating? Researcher Caroline Keating offers one possible 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.7
It is 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 reflex that pulls the ears backward. Ears back is a submissive display seen in most mammals.8 In contrast, lowering the brow likely originates from ear protraction, which pushes the ears forward and is an assertive display in many mammals. Like direct eye gaze, ears forward communicates that the sensory apparatus is focused on assertive or predatory action. Stated simply, the animal chasing has it ears forward, the animal being chased has its ears back.
Whether you are raising or lowering your eyebrows, doing so too frequently for too long will lead to muscular strain and psychological tension. As we will discuss in Chapter 8, the optimal posture is neutral eyebrows and wide eyes. Again, this involves relaxing the frontalis and the orbicularis oculi and lightly and infrequently contracting the (eyelid-widening) levator palpebrae.
Practice Frowning and Glaring to Increase Nonverbal Dominance
You should make an effort to become comfortable frowning and glaring. Body language experts agree that frowning, measured by the decreased distance between the eyebrows and the pupils, is strongly associated with dominance and leadership.9Unfortunately, many of us are afraid to frown because frowning in a social situation involuntarily recruits the stress response. You can conquer that reaction using the next exercise.
Exercise 4.6 reduces eyebrow raising and increases the size and tone of the frowning muscles. Someone who appears accustomed to frowning (i.e., who does it spontaneously and effortlessly) comes across as someone who has spent a lot of time being in charge. When you start using your new frown around people, don’t use it to intimidate but rather to express empathy or resolve. Do it the way the king of the jungle, an empress, or a superhero might do it.
Most of us have grown up afraid of giving someone else the “evil eye,” so we have stricken this contraction from our repertoire and left a “glaring omission” in our ability to emote using our eyes. The glare is a temporary and intense contraction of the squinting muscles. Glaring is considered dominant10because you generally must be authoritative to get away with it. Let’s not use it to threaten people. Use it very briefly to demonstrate concentration, conviction, or valor. You might choose to do this exercise, as well as the previous exercise, in front of a mirror so that you can combine them with eye contact while monitoring your face.
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 had no idea what he was talking about. I do now. I constantly raised my eyebrows and squinted (but never frowned or glared) so that I would appear friendly. Used briefly, eyebrow raising can communicate 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 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, between the ages of 17 and 32, I wore a hat seven days a week. For 15 years, the brim of a baseball hat blocked the sky from my view, training me not to cast my eyes upward. My whole behavioral repertoire involved looking down. Then, 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. That revelation galvanized me to train myself to look up.
We have all learned to habitually cast our gaze downward. We often do this to avoid eye contact, all the while signaling 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 they do it even when they dream. How dismal.
Most of us have grown up in an environment that discourages us from looking up in the presence of others. Other people’s reactions to our upward gaze have communicated to our 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 provides a window into their insecurities. More than this, looking down is neurologically tied 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 upward through practice, and 2) build the ocular muscles responsible for lifting the eyes. The exercise below is a great way to determine whether the muscles responsible for looking up (superior rectus), have atrophied from disuse.
I used to look at the floor unconditionally when speaking. I would look at the ground around my feet during most conversations. Somehow, I didn’t understand that this was a primary reason I couldn’t keep a conversation going. Try to stop looking down when you talk to people. People who are more severely affected can start looking at waist height, then shoulder height, and so on. Work toward being able to keep your gaze up around the height of your head. Once that starts to feel comfortable, work on looking up during conversations above the shared eye line.
It is generally discourteous to look directly above another person’s head, so look off to one side. As you look up during the conversation, you might be concerned that the other person will become puzzled or suspicious of this. If you are not accustomed to looking up, are not used to breathing deeply when doing it, or if your ocular muscles are weak, the other person will likely be able to tell that it is unnatural for you. Again, the only way for it to look natural is for you to practice.
People look up for many different reasons.11 With the head facing down, it can be coy and suggestive. With the head neutral or facing up, it can communicate boredom. 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 adopt an 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 as motives. Pretend that you are using the ceiling or sky as a canvas for your imagination to paint pictures of the topic of conversation. Looking up appears natural to others when you use the upper visual field to imagine things in the mind’s eye. Encourage others to do it with you.
There will be ample opportunities to practice during daily life. 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 cashier is looking directly at you. 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. While you do so, keep your head up, too. Gaze at the buildings, signs, telephone wires, and clouds. If you need to, remind yourself that looking up is your right. Your eyes are yours to use as you wish. As an added benefit, looking up naturally widens your eyes by engaging the levator palpebrae superioris muscles.
Improve Your Eye Contact Skills by Looking at Your Eyes in the Mirror
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 usually looked 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 looked at a person’s cheeks, nose, mouth, or ear, other times off into the space to the side of their head. I felt astounded when I realized 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 in the mirror. I could only look into my iris for a mere second or two before my eyes would flinch or dart away. This was caused by reflexive startle and was, therefore, unconscious and hard to resist. It happened because my brain areas devoted to controlling eye movement (such as the frontal eye fields and the superior colliculi) were not acclimatized to continual eye contact. My eyes were retreating out of fear.
Everyone’s eyes autonomously flinch away from eye contact 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 threats forced us to avert our gaze, have traumatized the unconscious motor systems that control the eyes. We should all try to break this neurological reflex to glance away from eye contact because it stunts our social growth.
Do you make direct and sustained eye contact with the characters on television? If not, then you probably have an aversion to making eye contact, as I did. Make a concerted effort to always look the characters onscreen straight in the eye. Many of us must force ourselves to start taking simple steps toward building up a tolerance for eye contact, which will help you develop a preference for it.
Illustration 4.5: A. Gorilla with wide eyes; B. A boy squinting and crying; C. Woman looking up and smiling.
The best way to desensitize yourself to eye contact is to spend prolonged periods looking into your own eyes in a mirror. Notice and resist the impulse to glance away. You will achieve results quickly. After pairing the exercise below with diaphragmatic breathing for one week (five minutes a day), you should be able to make unwavering eye contact with yourself and feel calm while doing it. After practicing it for a few weeks, you can do this with anyone. Now, I only look away when I choose to. I also 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 practice is right after you wake up when the tension in the muscles surrounding your eyes is most apparent. Performing the above eye-contact exercise in the morning will help you settle your eye posture into a positive, healthy mode early in the day, making it easier to keep your eyes wide throughout the day. You might also want to try it right before meeting someone on whom you want to make a good impression. Breathing usually becomes shallow during eye contact. If you can breathe diaphragmatically during sustained eye contact with yourself, you will be able to do it with other people. This is because most of the subcortical circuits involved don’t know the difference between looking yourself in the eye in a mirror and looking someone else in the eye. People will be surprised by how easy it is for you to sustain wide-eyed eye contact and impute saint-like qualities to you.
Socially dominant wolves stare freely and casually at their packmates, but those packmates never stare at the dominant animal.12 The same is true with monkeys. Momentary eye contact with a dominant individual causes them to perform a submission gesture as an apology.13 These patterns also pertain to apes. For example, chimps avoid eye contact during confrontations and physical struggles, and subordinate chimps make much less eye contact when they are around their dominant peers. Chimps may charge at an individual from another group if it makes eye contact. Staring between unfamiliar apes is often interpreted as a threat signal. Even an unfamiliar human staring at a primate often elicits an attack response. However, chimpanzees and gorillas from the same group frequently share gazes and use their eyes for communication, much like us.14 Familiar chimps that are similar in rank make concerted eye contact under normal conditions, especially when making up after a fight.
Of course, eye contact behavior among humans is far more variable than among primates, with sizeable cultural differences in the frequency and significance of different ocular behaviors. In many cultures, direct and prolonged eye contact is seen as a challenge or a test of nerves, so everyday eye contact tends to be brief. In America, averting the eyes is interpreted as a lack of confidence, certainty, or truthfulness15 while sustained eye contact is taken to indicate sincere interest, forthrightness, and attentiveness.16 In the American context, people who make more eye contact are seen as more competent, likable, and trustworthy overall.17 In general, the longer eye contact is maintained, the greater the intimacy levels.18 Positive feelings toward another person generally increase as the length and frequency of a mutual gaze increase.19 This instinct seems to be built into us. We are born expecting and craving eye contact. Infants prefer to look at faces that engage them in mutual eye contact20 and cry less when exposed to them.21
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. Most people have this worry to some degree. If you do, get over it. Also, keep in mind that refusing eye contact can be domineering, as when the alpha chimpanzee refuses to make eye contact or even look at some of their “subjects.” Release any unkind tendency you may have to avoid eye contact with people you may think are ugly or “beneath” you.
Throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, I paid little attention to eye contact in general, and because I did not attend to it, I was clumsy with it. The next two exercises helped me tremendously. 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 other hand, it also sometimes has the effect of making the person I am talking to feel uncomfortable, giving them the lurking suspicion that my eye contact is a way to assert myself. That trade-off seems to be intrinsic. There is no way to avoid sometimes appearing overbearing. All we can do is work toward healthy eye-contact habits even if they sometimes make people uncomfortable.
I spent years trying to figure out how to make eye contact in a way that is welcoming and not domineering. I eventually concluded that eye contact comes across as affable when it appears as if it takes no thought. However, it takes lots of experience for eye contact to become genuine and uncontrived. After some trial and error, I came across the following rules of thumb:
1) Make as much eye contact with others as they make with you. You might want to look away first, but then, when you reinstate eye contact, feel secure 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 gesture with your hands, raise your brow momentarily, or build a slow-growing smile, you can maintain your gaze without coming across as intense. If you can get yourself to feel trust, respect, or even love for others, your eye contact will become trusting, respectful, and loving. This is, perhaps, the most powerful and endearing way to make eye contact.
3) Do not look down when you look away from the other person’s eyes. When you look at the floor after making 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. When in a group, take the time to look each person in the eye while you talk.
5) Many experts in nonverbal communication recommend trying to make eye contact about 60% of the time during a conversation.22 Be sensitive, however, to how the other person is responding to your extended eye contact. They may feed off it or actively avoid it.
6) I think it is profitable to discuss eye contact with friends and acquaintances. I have told several friends: “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 our 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.”
The following exercise combines several tactics into one larger practice to help you develop reflexes around a healthy, assertive social gaze that communicates to others your bold eye contact is a positive form of social engagement.
In apes and monkeys, dominant individuals stare down subordinate ones.23 The state of affairs is similar for humans. The visual dominance ratio (VDR) is a concept used in psychology to quantify eye contact behavior between people in a conversation.24 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).
This means that if you make about the same amount of eye contact while speaking that you do while listening, your VDR is roughly 1. If you make more eye contact while speaking, your VDR rises above 1, which is dominant. If you make most of your eye contact while listening (and look away when you speak), it drops below 1. Usually, a high VDR indicates that you think what you have to say is important.
Studies have shown that when people speak to their peers and colleagues, they have an average VDR of around 1. When they speak to experts or high-status individuals, their VDR drops, and when they speak to people lower in status, their VDR rises. For example, when individuals in the military speak to someone of higher rank, their VDR goes down; when they speak to someone of lower rank, it goes up. The same has been shown to occur in the corporate hierarchy as well as in fraternities and sororities.25
The upstanding, genteel strategy is to aim for a VDR of around 1.00 with everyone regardless of their status. However, I was unable to achieve a VDR higher than .20 because I found it extremely difficult to maintain eye contact as I formulated my sentences. Making eye contact would leave me tongue-tied. Years of subordination made it so that I just didn’t have the processing capability to do both things at once. The exercise below cured this. Use the training exercise below to raise your VDR quotient.
Try to use eye contact to show the other person that you are curious about their facial responses to the topic of conversation. This will keep them engaged. It has been my experience that most people find eye contact that comes across as interested in them to be validating and endearing. Finally, the last major benefit of increased (positive) eye contact is that you learn so much more when you look at people than when you look away. It makes you better at processing emotions and will increase your empathy quotient.
It was easy to help my cat become more comfortable with eye contact. First, I would hold him gently so that he was facing me in a way that allowed him to rest and be still. I would position my face close to his and make eye contact with him while petting him for reassurance. While breathing calmly, I would look into both his eyes for just under a minute. 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. Like most cats, his normal pattern had been to squint, look down, or break eye contact when looking at me. To help counteract that, I fostered his ability to make sustained contact by not staring him down, instead looking away about half the time. To help him stop squinting, I also gently massaged the orbits of his eyes.
The results were noticeable quite quickly. Within a few weeks, he stopped squinting and his eyes were wider all the time. He now actively seeks wide-eyed eye contact from everyone. That, in turn, seems to have increased his social intelligence. This is probably because he is now exposed to more information from people’s faces as he interacts with them. I watched my cat become more personable and noticed a real increase in the strength of our bond. Studies back this up, reporting that extended eye contact between a dog and its owner increases the secretion of oxytocin, a neuromodulator involved in social connection, in both animals.26
Illustration 4.6: Friends talking with eye contact; B. Eye, iris, and pupil; C. A couple making intimate eye contact.
From kindergarten through college, I could not hold eye contact with my female classmates. Unbeknown 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, at least to some extent. There was one boy though who spent every recess with the girls. They all adored him, and I never understood why. I also never understood why he would idiosyncratically roll his eyes up into his head every few minutes. I get it now. He would roll his eyes to engage the muscles that widen the eyes. The wide eyes are part of what allowed him to keep sustained eye contact with the girls. His eyes were as wide as or wider than theirs. Because he looked neither offensive nor defensive, the girls 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 seek out eye contact from you.
Most of us are afraid that fixing our gaze on anything will make us look too calm. We keep our eyes busy to make others feel comfortable. Take a minute now and observe yourself looking around. You should be able to sense pressure to keep glancing neurotically. This comes from a form of anxiety in the eye motor centers that act below the level of conscious awareness. The restlessness makes it difficult for you to maintain eye contact and to fixate on anything if other people are watching you. The best way to retrain this nervous habit is to become more comfortable anchoring your gaze without worrying about how you may appear to others while doing it.
Sensory deprivation can help uncover baseline neurotic tendencies. Let’s start with sight. Tracking your ocular behavior in complete darkness will make it clear how much of your eye movement is high-strung and unnecessary. The best way to do this is to wait until nighttime, turn off all the lights in your home, and lie down on the floor of a closet or bathroom. Do whatever you can to make this area completely dark. You may need to put up curtains or drape some towels over the cracks. Being in pitch blackness makes it easier to feel absolutely certain that no one can see your face, expressions, or eye movements. Think back to the way your submissive signaling diminished when you took that walk around the block while pretending to be invisible. Complete darkness allows you an even greater degree of invisibility and anonymity. No one and nothing can be offended by how relaxed you appear because you truly are invisible. Take the opportunity to relax fully and open your eyes very wide without compunction.
In absolute darkness, I feel like a slimy, gelatinous sea slug that has been removed from all danger. I can feel the squinting contraction release in the same way that the sea slug we discussed in Chapter 2 releases its gill. The complete vacancy of visual stimulus will desensitize you and provide your eyes with the experience they need to grow wide. This phenomenon is also a bit like eyestalk extension in snails. When you touch a snail, its eyestalks retract. The eyes invert within the eyestalks and travel down toward the head. This action 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 eyes slowly evert, the eyestalks reach full length, and the eyes pop out at the top. Use the exercises above to develop fearless, wide eyes and fully extend your “eyestalks.”
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.27This visual activity will be accentuated if you lightly rub your eyes. The phosphenes represent a type of background noise that is usually not noticeable yet always ongoing. When the lights are on, phosphene activity is put to work, helping you make perceptual distinctions. When the lights are off, that activity hits a stumbling block, amounting to a low-level form of hallucination.
I believe these phosphenes can play a role in driving anxious thought. Notice when they flash abruptly, and calm your reaction to this. You may notice that they flare when you look straight, keeping you from maintaining a fixed gaze. You may also notice that they burst 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. This all 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 your conscious and unconscious responses to the phosphene activity by pairing the experience with diaphragmatic breathing. After doing Exercise 4.14 twice for five minutes, I never again saw any frightful apparitions. I strongly recommend that you use this technique to free the background activity of your visual system from unnecessary negativity.
I recommend buying noise-reducing earmuffs to use in your dark closet. With the earmuffs on, you will be able to hear the background activity of your auditory system just as darkness reveals the background activity of your visual system. For most of us, background auditory function takes the form of a ringing or buzzing in the ears, which is known as tinnitus.28When I first heard the hissing sound, amplified by the earmuffs, it was very upsetting. I abhorred it. Many people feel this way, which is unfortunate because some degree of tinnitus is always there, whether we are conscious of it or not. I found that the practice of breathing diaphragmatically and listening to my tinnitus gradually 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 will make it so that their default settings do not haunt you during everyday life.
The final exercise puts several of the routines from this chapter together into a single routine that you can perform while watching television.
Some of these exercises may seem strange, forced, and almost comical. Remember, though, that when you perform them, you are coactivating behavioral subroutines not ordinarily coactivated together because of social constraints. By pairing these with diaphragmatic breathing, you reeducate your nervous system to treat them as 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 rarely have the opportunity to make prolonged eye contact, looking up with wide eyes, breathing diaphragmatically in the course of everyday life. To build optimal behaviors into our repertoire, we must create artificially ideal worlds in which to practice.
The next chapter widens our focus. Behaviors like squinting, looking down, and glancing away all have muscular components to them. Chapter 5 discusses repetitive muscular strain in detail and considers the panoply of negative effects on us. This will set the context for the rest of the book, which will guide you to overcome it.
- Squinting, eyebrow raising, looking down, and gaze aversion are forms of trauma that fracture our composure but can easily be rehabilitated.
- Widening your eyes, relaxing your brow, looking up, and practicing a fixed gaze have many benefits and will literally change your perspective on life.
- Squinting is defensive and intended to protect the eyeballs. On a fundamental level it is a sign of defensiveness or submission. Deliberately widening the eyes can end excessive squinting and is especially easy to do when breathing long, deep breaths.
- Raised eyebrows are analogous to the action of moving the ears backward in other mammals. This action is performed by an animal being chased so that it can hear its attacker behind it. It is submissive and so should not be strained for long periods.
- Eyebrows lowered is analogous to ears forward, which is the posture for an animal chasing another. This should not be strained, either. However, becoming comfortable lowering your eyebrows into a full frown will increase your nonverbal dominance. The same goes for glaring and the side-eye.
- Looking down is submissive and doing it habitually weakens the muscles that allow us to look up. Looking upward above the horizon more often strengthens your ocular muscles and conditions your nervous system to stop casting your gaze toward the floor.
- Social trauma has caused us to become afraid of fixing our gaze on anything, especially another’s eyes.
- Making prolonged eye contact with yourself in a mirror or simply gazing calmly at points in space will train your unconscious visual control systems to be comfortable maintaining a fixed gaze.
- After making eye contact, look at or near the eye line rather than below it.
- Looking at characters on the TV straight in their eyes will strengthen your ability to look real people in the eyes.
- Speaking to someone on the telephone while making sustained, wide-eyed eye contact with yourself in a mirror will strengthen your face-to-face rapport with others.
- Spending time in complete darkness while engaging in paced breathing will help you make your visual system’s default activity less chaotic and frightening. Using sound-reducing earmuffs can do the same for your default auditory activity.
- Watching TV upside down can reinforce looking up and eye-widening.
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