THE MEDICINE

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Karen Hitch­cock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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