In­trigued by an eye gaz­ing event that popped up on her Face­book feed, Amy Wil­liams went along to in­ves­ti­gate

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - PIC­TURES BY GREG BOWKER

In­trigued by an eye gaz­ing event that popped up on her Face­book feed, Amy Wil­liams went along to in­ves­ti­gate

It was an early au­tumn day when I stepped way out­side of my com­fort zone and joined com­plete strangers sit­ting si­lently on the grass, star­ing at each other.

I was at Auck­land’s Al­bert Park for an eye gaz­ing event that had popped up on my Face­book feed a few weeks ear­lier, piquing my cu­rios­ity. Star­ing on pur­pose? My mother, and prob­a­bly yours, al­ways told me not to stare at peo­ple, be­cause star­ing is im­po­lite.

But here I was. Within sec­onds of look­ing into the eyes of the event’s fa­cil­i­ta­tor, Shin Nummy, I felt self-con­scious; the time slowly tick­ing by. To re­lease my dis­com­fort I laughed and looked away be­fore re­turn­ing his gaze, try­ing to main­tain fo­cus.

This was the first time I’ve started an in­ter­view with­out talk­ing, but after the ini­tial awk­ward­ness I started to feel like we were ... friends. Weird, I know. I lasted per­haps another minute be­fore I broke eye con­tact with a smile and a ques­tion — why do you do this?

“It’s re­ally nice do­ing this be­cause any­one can walk past and con­nect with another per­son. Hu­man con­nec­tion is re­ally im­por­tant to me,” says Nummy, 34, who works as a tofu-maker.

The Hu­man Con­nec­tion Move­ment or­gan­ises and pro­motes the eye gaz­ing events as a way to con­nect more deeply with oth­ers. Their pub­lic eye gaz­ing events started this year (held monthly in Auck­land, the lat­est was rained out) where any­one can join in just by sit­ting op­po­site some­one else and look­ing. Par­tic­i­pants are en­cour­aged to talk after eye gaz­ing.

To most of us, that sounds pretty daunt­ing. But why is that? What it is about eye con­tact that can make us feel so un­com­fort­able? And with the likes of Face­book, Snapchat and In­sta­gram com­pet­ing for our at­ten­tion, does it even mat­ter? How im­por­tant is eye-to-eye time?

RE­SEARCHERS HAVE long known that eye con­tact is an im­por­tant so­cial sig­nal, and one that we soak in right from day one. The Univer­sity of Lon­don’s Cen­tre for Brain and Cog­ni­tive De­vel­op­ment says that mak­ing eye con­tact is the most pow­er­ful mode of es­tab­lish­ing a com­mu­nica­tive link be­tween hu­mans.

In 2002, the cen­tre con­ducted two ex­per­i­ments to demon­strate how ba­bies process di­rect eye con­tact from birth, find­ing that new­borns pre­fer to look at faces that en­gage them in a mutual gaze and that, from an early age, most ba­bies are also able to take in a di­rect gaze. (A lack of eye con­tact is one of the early signs of autism in in­fants and tod­dlers.) Their con­clu­sion? Mutual gaze from birth helps to lay a ma­jor foun­da­tion for the later de­vel­op­ment of so­cial skills.

Pro­fes­sor Will Hay­ward, 49, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong, spe­cialises in vis­ual at­ten­tion, un­der­stand­ing how we make sense of the world that we see and hear. He says eye con­tact is some­thing that de­vel­ops

nat­u­rally and is au­to­matic for peo­ple, and there­fore is not some­thing we need to prac­tise, like ex­er­cise.

He says that look­ing into another per­son’s eyes builds in­ti­macy as we give and re­ceive in­for­ma­tion about our emo­tions and in­ten­tions, so the more we gaze, the more in­ti­mate we feel the con­nec­tion.

“If you gaze into a stranger’s eyes, you be­gin to feel like you’re send­ing sig­nals and get­ting sig­nals about the level of in­ti­macy that you ac­tu­ally know you’re not hav­ing, and that becomes re­ally weird.”

Hay­ward cites an ex­per­i­ment con­ducted by a group of psy­chol­o­gists at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia in Canada, who sat two strangers op­po­site each other and asked them to look into each other’s eyes and not look away, just to see what hap­pened.

“The nat­u­ral thing is they’d look at each other and within about 10 sec­onds they just started laugh­ing and needed to do some­thing to ease the ten­sion be­cause they couldn’t just sit there and do it,” he says.

How­ever, the study found strangers who were asked to look straight at each other after play­ing a com­pet­i­tive game could hold a gaze — they treated it as a star­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

Hay­ward says we tend to au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just our gaze to suit a so­cial sit­u­a­tion. But that’s where the so­cial cues can come un­stuck, be­cause some cul­tures are po­lar op­po­sites in the way they view eye con­tact, with some see­ing it as a sign of re­spect and oth­ers a sign of dis­re­spect.

He sug­gests be­ing aware of cul­tural dif­fer­ences and mod­er­at­ing your gaze ac­cord­ingly.

As for sus­tained eye con­tact, Hay­ward says he wouldn’t warn peo­ple off eye gaz­ing as a means to feel more con­nected to oth­ers.

And what about our ten­dency to­day to fo­cus on our mo­bile screens? Does that change any­thing?

“I think more gen­er­ally, de­vices can get in the way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If I’m talk­ing to my wife and send­ing an email on my phone, then it’s a dis­trac­tion cer­tainly, but I’m not sure that it’s train­ing us to be poor at mak­ing eye con­tact.”

ON FACE­BOOK, the eye gaz­ing event at­tracted 200 peo­ple in­ter­ested in go­ing, but a smaller crowd turned up on the day, many of them univer­sity stu­dents.

Amy Cr­erar, 19, went along with a friend think­ing it would be weird, but she ad­mits to un­der­es­ti­mat­ing how un­com­fort­able it would be.

“I just marched in there and thought ‘it’s just peo­ple sit­ting on the grass star­ing at each other’ but to start with it was quite awk­ward and I found my­self look­ing away from the per­son quite a bit.”

An arts stu­dent at univer­sity, Cr­erar won the na­tional high school spo­ken word po­etry slam with her group last year, and is in­ter­ested in all forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“I’ve al­ways known that shar­ing eye con­tact is a re­ally im­por­tant feature of a con­ver­sa­tion but I wanted to test my­self on how well I did that and whether or not it would be chal­leng­ing for me.”

She found the ex­pe­ri­ence help­ful, and would try it again.

“I’ve taken some­thing from it that has been trig­gered in other con­ver­sa­tions in my life. When I’m talk­ing to some­one I’m more aware that you can get a lot out of the physical con­nec­tion to them.”

SO DOES eye gaz­ing at­tract a cer­tain type of per­son — hip­sters and al­ter­na­tive types? Nummy cer­tainly ticks all the boxes for what I’d ex­pect an eye gazer to be — a ve­gan who prac­tises yoga. I wouldn’t con­sider my­self the tar­get mar­ket (as a mum of three lit­tlies), although per­haps I could inch in on Nummy’s yoga mat given I brew my own kom­bucha.

Among the crowd gath­ered on the grass is a woman dressed head-to-toe in fire-en­gine red, a young pair hold­ing hands while eye gaz­ing (they’ve just met), and a med­i­ta­tion veteran.

“It’s so broad be­cause you have those peo­ple who are want­ing hu­man con­nec­tion and who are re­ally quite shy but they think ‘oh maybe I could just sit down and do this for a cou­ple of min­utes’,” Nummy says.

He ad­mits to once be­ing ex­tremely in­tro­verted, not want­ing to sit next to peo­ple on buses and gen­er­ally keep­ing to him­self. When he tried eye

You have those peo­ple who are want­ing hu­man con­nec­tion and who are re­ally quite shy but they think ‘oh maybe I could just sit down and do this for a cou­ple of min­utes’. Shin Nummy

Shin Nummy’s eye gaz­ing ses­sions aim to pro­mote eye con­tact and, ul­ti­mately, hu­man con­nec­tion.

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