You’ve probably heard that eye contact is important. It’s one of the first things you’ll learn if you take a course in public speaking. They’ll tell you eye contact demonstrates confidence and engages listeners. That’s true. Even Cuddle Labs has stipulated that eye contact is one of the integral elements of a good cuddle. But did you know that there is a whole field of research dedicated to exploring the significance, perceived and biological, of eye contact? It’s called Oculesics, and it’s revealed a lot of really interesting information pertaining to cuddling. Most pertinent is the discovery that prolonged eye contact stimulates the production of oxytocin, just like a social touch.
So, think about your own experiences with eye contact. If you live in a big city, like me, you may find yourself wondering about it a lot, thanks to a city’s tendency to push a bunch of total strangers into a small space for an extended period of time (like the subway). Usually, if my eyes meet someone else’s, both lookers quickly look away. Why is that? What makes eye contact uncomfortable in that situation? And what if I maintain eye contact? Keeping a straight face feels totally weird. I have to smile. And if I smile, the person I’m looking at will usually smile back. So eye contact is either awkward or induces smiling. Weird.
We feel these ways because eye contact is actually a very intimate behavior. It feels uncomfortable if you’re not feeling intimate with the other participant. It feels just the same as it might if you hugged that same person, or if they hugged you. It crosses a boundary that we only take down when we’re feeling safe and open. It’s really like a hands-free cuddle. And don’t forget about these same feelings coming up with people you do know. So much can be communicated solely through eye contact. So what’s going on here? Why does eye contact feel so similar to physical contact?
Well, of course there is the oxytocin proposition to consider, but a deeper answer also lies in the newly developing human brain. In a 1996 study, a group of Canadian scientists assigned babies to two groups. In one group the caretakers were encouraged to make eye contact, and in the other group they were not allowed. The study found that the group deprived of eye contact smiled less. This is a significant finding–frequency of smiling in babies is a good indicator of how they are developing emotionally and socially, because it is an instinctive behavior and because infants behave mostly with facial expressions (and crying).
Why did the deprived babies smile less? It makes sense if you consider a few basic psychological principles. First, happiness comes from reward. “Reward” in the field of psychology is a broad term, meaning anything that stimulates a positive response in the receiver. It can be your crush laughing at your jokes, a teacher giving a few words of praise, or a even the crying of a bullying victim, if that’s what you’re after. See, the thing about rewards is that they only have to matter to the receiver. So while I would not want to make anyone cry, a bully may find it satisfying (if only for a little while). When a person is rewarded, the result is always the same: the behavior that merited the reward becomes more likely to be repeated. If a reward is withheld or some punishment is administered, the behavior will decrease in frequency. This is why the babies who were deprived of eye contact smiled less: because they were deprived of intimacy. Babies don’t look away as we grownups do–just as with the bully, they have different reward preferences than we do. Eye contact is always welcome to them; always rewarding. They have no fear of intimacy and it is their only way of feeling connected to their surroundings.
My point is simple: eye contact is powerful and it is a gift that can be given like a hug. It is the intangible cuddle. And of course, our friend oxytocin can back me up here. The fact that oxytocin is released supports our new proposition: EYE CONTACT IS THE HANDS-FREE CUDDLE.
Now go forth, and look.