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The Many Meanings of the Eyes in Human Interaction

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

closeup of a woman's eyesThis article is a re-issue of the one published on September 22, 2008. Many revisions have been made and items have been added.

In my work as a psychotherapist with both children and adults, eye contact is sometimes a major issue. There are always a few patients who are simply unable to look directly at me. They sit with their eyes averted to the left, right or down. Eventually, as trust is built, the issue is addressed. While these individuals are able to discuss the problem, they remain unable to modify their behavior without great effort and painful feelings. The major pain experienced seems to range from fear to panic.

In our Online Support Community, where I am a moderator, there are members who discuss their struggles with the same problem. Several people have commented about their struggles with eye contact, particularly in their communications with medical doctors and other types of "authority figures."
For some, it becomes a problem at work where they end up feeling shunned and even have fired because of it. In social situations they also experience rejection, mostly because potential friends interpret the averting of eyes as rejection of them.

Therefore, I thought it important to re-write this posting about "eyes" in order to discuss the various meanings of making and avoiding eye contact.

It is not known who wrote the words, "The eyes are the windows to the soul." It may have been written by an Arab in ancient times or may have been taken from the Old Testament. One expert on the Talmud, the Hebrew commentary on Jewish law, cited a potential source for the quote. However, no one actually knows for sure and, in fact, it may have several different sources. It is an interesting discussion because of the many metaphoric meanings of the eyes in human life.

The interpretation of the words is that by looking into the eyes of a person one gets a view into their hidden emotions, attitudes and even thoughts.

The Importance of "The Eyes":

Studies in psychology show that the human infant responds directly to parental eye contact. In fact, even the youngest infants prefer staring at any shape that resembles the human face. More than that, they prefer adult faces who stare directly at them, rather than those who avert their eyes. Anyone who has bottle fed or nursed an infant cannot help but notice how the baby's eyes stare directly into their own. Through this eye contact, the infant learns a lot about human communication and interaction. Considering the fact that much of human interaction is non verbal in nature, eye contact is a major medium through which we communicate our needs and wants.

For example, one study demonstrated how people in the United States and Europe, focus their eyes on the mouth to decipher non verbal communications when talking with another person. Yet, in Japanese society, the focus is on the eyes. Evidently, in Japanese culture, there is much in the way of non verbal communication surrounding the eyes, eyebrows and eye lids.

Language is filled with metaphors referring to eye contact. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960's, it was said that the Soviet Union "blinked first." The meaning was clear - the Soviet Union submitted to American pressure. Other metaphors include: he or she had a "cold stare," the eyes were "steely and hard," she had a "penetrating look," shame faced, the child "stared at his shoes," through the "fog of war" it was difficult to see the outcome of battle, he and I came to "see eye to eye," and there are thousands of other such metaphors referring to the eyes.

How many times have you asked a friend or relative to "keep an eye" on your brief case, luggage, child or other valuable possession?

Historians, political commentators and columnists evaluate world leaders, past and present, as being "far sighted or narrow and near sighted." Naturally, a "far sighted" leader is one with the sharpness of mind to anticipate the outcome of his nation's actions on the world scene. A "near sighted" leader can cause disastrous consequences for his nation and the world through his "lack of vision."

Having grown up in New York City and frequently travelled the subway system, I, along with millions of other New Yorkers, soon learned the importance of avoiding eye contact with other passengers. The reason was simple: direct eye contact can easily be mis perceived by a stranger as a challenge to fight. Many paranoid patients report the thought that when they believe they are being stared at, then they are about to be attacked. In fact, some paranoid patients have been known to make drawings of the human head and figure with unusually large eyes. The grossly distorted drawings often represent looking out suspiciously into what is perceived as a dangerous and aggressive world.

It is often said that much like in the animal world, when two men who are strangers stare at each other, they are sending the challenging and dangerous message about an invitation to fight. This is sometimes verbally expressed as "get out of my face, man!!" Another verbal challenge to the stare is, "What are you staring at, man???" This is said in a loud and aggressive way. People even speak of power struggles with another by "staring them down." On the other hand, when a man and woman stare at one another, they are communicating sexual interest. The eyes can be used in ways that are coy, seductive and inviting of sexual interest between man and woman.

How many poems and love stories exist about lovers peering deeply and lovingly into one another's eyes? During times past, women exhibited their sensual feelings by fluttering their eye lids. Others have described the eyes of their lovers as being like a "vast ocean into which they want to dive."

Many decades ago, before I entered the field of mental health, I was a high school teacher in New York City. It goes without saying that the youngsters in my classes came from culturally diverse backgrounds. Early on I was mystified as to why my students from Puerto Rican backgrounds averted their eyes when speaking to me. Initially, since I was a very young and inexperienced teacher, I feared they were showing me "disrespect."  After all, where I was raised, parents and teachers demanded eye contact when being spoken to. That was a sign of respect. It seemed natural to me that the students were challenging my authority when they refused to make eye contact. I soon learned that this could not be farther from the truth. The fact was that these students, coming from their particular culture, were showing me the greatest respect by averting eye contact. For them, challenge and disrespect was to dare to look directly into my eyes. That piece of knowledge turned out to be enormously important to me in helping these, and other young people, learn and advance.

Early in my mental health training there was a young adolescent who, upon seeing me, closed her eyes. This psychotic patient thought that by not seeing me, I would not see her.

Children love to play staring games with each other. The idea of the game is to see who can stare the longest without laughing or blinking. The child who laughs, blinks or averts the eyes first, is the "loser." In this way, children are engaging in a kind of "arm wrestling contest." The winner is the "strongest."

It is commonly known that a child can have serious developmental disabilities, such as autism, if they constantly avoid eye contact. Lack of eye contact is a good indicator of a child who has problems with social interaction.

Those who are shy may have difficulty with eye contact out of a sense of embarrassment. This is why blushing can be so very painful for those with a tendency to easily blush when speaking to people. Their discomfort is about the notion that the blush will reveal their shyness. My strategy for people who have struggled with this is to embrace their shyness and openly and proudly admit it.

This posting cannot omit the Old Testament quotation: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life." In other words, the injured party has the right to demand equal punishment for the losses caused by the accused, even death if the accused took the life of a family member.

The eyes are fraught with all types of symbolic meanings for human beings.

What are your experiences with eye contact?

What metaphors and meanings do you associate with the eyes?

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, PhD