This Valentine’s Day, take a moment to wonder why you’re so attracted to eyes. You can “keep your eyes peeled,” “see eye-to-eye” with some but “turn a blind eye” to others. Some people are “more than meets the eye,” others are “the apple of your eye” or “a sight for sore eyes.” Or you might “not bat an eye” to something unusual while making sure no one can “pull the wool over your eyes.”
So, what’s so special about eyes? For humans, eyes are more than just our windows to the outside world. They’re also portals inward, providing glimpses into our inner thoughts and feelings. Our eyes are also powerful tools. They can pick up so many subtle messages, even slight changes in other’s bodies. For instance:
– Eye contact indicates interest, disinterest or even intimidation
– Changes in pupillary size happen as interest in another peaks or wanes
– Skin tone and texture alterations due to changes in blood flow caused by emotions
– Tension or release of minute facial and scalp muscles, also due to emotional changes
– Lock eyes with the one you love
You can’t boil the complexity of love down to just a wink, a nod and a grin. However, it’s clear your eyes are intimately involved with physical attraction, probably seduction and even the dynamics of romantic love. Eye contact is a key part of human interpersonal communication. We identify a good deal from another’s gaze – whether they’re feeling negative or positive, interested or blasé. Eye contact is a key way to understand if someone is flirting, engaging with you or has a deeper connection.
In fact, some scientists believe eye contact is a powerful stimulator of affection. They claim when you look someone who finds you attractive directly in the eyes, his/her body produces a chemical called phenylethylamine (a natural amphetamine), that enhances their tendency to feel ‘in love.’
Love or Lust? It’s all in the gaze
What happens when someone suddenly changes their gaze to look directly at you, combining the social cue of eye contact with a sudden movement? This phenomenon has been extensively researched and it appears two independent channels work together to enhance our engagement with such sudden looks. A study by University of Chicago researchers has found that the difference between love and lust might just start with the eyes. They found that automatic judgments about whether you’re a potential love interest or sexual partner can happen in as little as half a second, producing different gaze patterns. If your date gazes directly at your face, it could mean they see you as a potential romantic partner. But if they’re staring more at your body, sexual desire is on the cards. The researchers also found there was no significant difference in the time subjects took to identify romantic love versus sexual desire, which shows how quickly the brain can process both emotions.
Women appear more naturally aware that eye contact can activate men’s hormones and interest. That’s why they’re often so careful to avoid eye contact with men in public – unless they want attention. If a woman desires attention from a man, she often instinctually knows eye contact (plus a little smile) is one of the fastest ways to get it. “Biologically, men are less likely to maintain eye contact with other individuals,” the study explains. “One reason is our old friend testosterone. This hormone actually conditions the brain to seek, and make, less eye contact than occurs in women. In fact, in many species males avoid direct eye contact because it increases levels of arousal and can be perceived as threatening. Eye contact can actually make men feel less, not more, comfortable.”
Kellerman et al found that when two strangers gazed into each other’s eyes for over two minutes they would report increased feelings of passion, love and/or affection towards the other person.
What big eyes you have!
The causes and consequences of pupil dilation are particularly interesting, because we’re often not aware we’re communicating so much. Your pupils dilate for a wide range of reasons: they expand in dim light and contract in bright light. But they also dilate when you experience strong emotions, such as sexual passion. Of all the primates, only humans have a white area around the coloured portion of their eye (called the sclera). And even though the human male’s eye is slightly larger, the female eye shows a higher proportion of white. To attract male attention, women therefore tend to use wide-eyed and darting eye movements to flash as much eye white area as often as possible.
Over 500 years ago, women in Italy used the juice from Belladonna berries (otherwise known as Deadly Nightshade) to dilate their pupils, believing it would increase their attractiveness. In fact, even though the plant can be extremely poisonous, Belladonna literally means “beautiful lady.” They thought larger pupils would make their eyes seem more “dreamy” and entice men into falling in love with them. While you can’t force or artificially manufacture an attraction between two people, modern studies have confirmed these medieval femme fatales might have been correct.
In the 60s and 70s, Hess et al studied the effect of pupil size on feelings of attraction. They found “none of the men reported noticing the difference in pupil size” in pictures of women with normal or dilated pupils. Nevertheless, a subtle change seemed to subconsciously influence the level of attraction they felt for the women. A woman with enlarged pupils was described to be “soft,” “more feminine” and “pretty” while the very same woman pictured with small pupils was described as “cold,” “hard” and “selfish.” Over the years, this frequently referenced experiment has been re-tested using a variety of methods over the years. The result is always the same: men finding women with larger pupils to be more romantically appealing.
Drink to me only with thine eyes
But is the opposite true? Are women attracted to men with large pupils? Interestingly the answer is: only sometimes. Apparently, larger pupils only appear more attractive to women into ‘bad boys’ or seeking a short-term fling. Studies have determined that women who were unknowingly more attracted to men with larger pupils also reported they usually get romantically involved with bad boy types, although this happened less because they were usually too busy looking cool and wearing dark Oakley sunglasses. On the other hand, women who preferred men with medium-sized pupils sought long-term relationships with ‘nice guys’ more often than not.
Perhaps these findings shouldn’t surprise us. One study (Helen Fisher et al) measured the brain activity of participants professing to be deeply in love. It found that, when these participants viewed a picture of their loved one, areas of their brain rich in dopamine receptors were activated. Dopamine causes excitement, energy and motivation. Another thing dopamine causes? Pupillary dilatation.
So, here we’ve come full circle. If love is the drug, the eyes are where the first high happens. This Valentine’s day, spend some time gazing your loved one in the eye and watch if their pupils dilate – it may be the best indicator that your regard is returned.