The eyes have it


By Dr Sunder Das

There are many expressions in the English language, which relate to the eyes, like ”˜apple of one’s eye’, ”˜an eyesore’, ”˜see eye to eye’, ”˜give the eye’ and so on. Out of all the anatomical references current in day-to-day conversation, the eye seems to be mentioned four times as frequently as other parts of the body.

The awesome Russian monk Rasputin is reported to have had a powerful gaze, which few people could return without feeling afraid. Many yogis in India are credited to have ”˜soul searching’ eyes.

The ”˜third eye’ has been celebrated in mystical literature. This concept originated in the Hindu culture and is known as the eye of understanding, situated in Ajana Chakra in the middle of the forehead. Many meditators of the East roll their eyes towards the Ajana Chakra to awaken their inner vision.

In ancient Egypt, the eye was considered the womb of the Goddess from which the gods were born. The sun gods Osiris and Ra were often associated with the eye. The Greeks, the Sumarians and the Mexican Indians represented the eye as one of the mystical symbols.

R.A. Wilner, in her book “Charismatic Political Leadership’, speaks of the cold eyes of Kamal Ataturk, the hypnotic eyes of Nasser and Hitler, the piercing eyes of Lenin and the luminous eyes of Mussolini.

Jimmy carter, is supposed to have cold eyes, but his broad smile and the ability to make easy eye-contact with people seem to win him friends all over the world. John Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru were able to make charismatic eye contact with people. Benazir Bhutto had loving eyes, which charmed everyone who came in contact with her.

Although many Americans say that Richard Nixon avoided looking at people in the eye, or even looking at the lens of a TV camera, he made up for it by his sophistication in interpersonal encounters. His celebrated interviews with David Frost are examples of this ability.

With animals and human beings, the gaze determines dominance or submission. The dominant person stares while the subordinate one lowers the head or looks away. Teachers, who undergo assertion training, are told to look directly at the offending pupil’s eyes while commanding him/her in a firm tone of voice.

Sometimes the submissive role of lowering the eyes is necessary for survival, on a job for instance. Sergeant Carter may walk around and glare at Gomer Pyle, but Gomer must stand at attention with eyes straight looking ahead. However, if roles of dominance and submission are already established, the dominant person no longer needs to control the situation with the direct stare, except when there is rebellion in the ranks.

Recent research has shown that both younger and older women engage in more gazing and show a higher frequency of eye contact than men. However, they usually modify their looking behaviour such as gazing down or frequently breaking eye contact. On the other hand, when men look, they hold a direct, unbroken gaze. In a book entitled ”˜Gender and non-verbal behaviour’, J.J. Haviland and C.Z. Malatesta point out that gender differences become apparent at an early age.

It is difficult to explain why these differences exist and how they are maintained from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps the finding that eye contact occurs in greater amount in people, who are more affection oriented, could explain why women tend to maintain their gaze consistently. Women are known to be more affiliative than men.

Michael Argyle and R. Ingham have also found that women tend to increase their looking while listening. In a crowded lift, both men and women tend to decrease their eye contact although females in crowds of their own gender are likely to be friendlier towards one another. Men crowded with men are likely to become negative and unfriendly.

In the United States of America, many studies have been done to elicit the pattern of eye contacts between blacks and whites. Even in the late 1950s in South, a black man’s gaze at a white woman was construed as rape, a 15-year old black boy being lynched in Mississippi for just staring at a white girl.

Recent studies have shown that the infant is born with a relatively mature visual system and that eye contact is the primary channel for bonding between the infant and the caregiver. Rene Spitz has noted “that the nursing infant does not remove, for an instant, its eyes from the mother’s face until it falls asleep at the breast satiated.” Much of the infant’s energy is spent on looking at the caregiver and following her movements with the eyes. As early as nine months of age, human infants are attracted to the eyes than to any other stimulus.

Cultural differences do exist in the degree and character of eye contact. Michael Argyle thinks that in extraverted culture (Australia is an example) more gazing can be expected. In cultures that can be said to be introverted, as those in some parts of India and Japan, more self-presentation behaviour and greater control over the information emitted about the self, can be expected. Therefore less gazing may result.

In societies such as in Uganda and among the American Indians, in which mothers carry their infants on their backs, there is less chance of a baby looking into the mother’s eyes. It may be expected that when these babies grow into adulthood, they would tend to gaze less at other people’ eyes. It may also be expected that such child rearing practices can result in great need for interpersonal space.

Each culture implicitly expects a ”˜moral’ looking time. Too long a gaze could suggest intimacy or dominance, and too little may be construed as lack of interest or dishonesty or suspicion.

Some Middle Eastern people are very sensitive to non-verbal communication, and for them eye contact is very important. Indians, Pakistanis, the Japanese and some North European people have a tendency to orient themselves towards others without looking directly into the eyes or the face.

It seems that more than anything else, travellers from one country to another need to learn patterns of eye contact, and the rules of proximity first, and then only the other nuances.

There are many clinical applications to the study of eye contact. Autistic children avoid eye-to-eye contact. Any attempt to force such a child to fixate upon an adult, makes it to shield its eyes with the hands. A plausible explanation for this behaviour is that autistic children in a state of high behavioural and physiological arousal and therefore they would seek a reduction of perceptual stimuli, such as eye contact. One interesting outcome of averting the gaze by an autistic child is that it is rarely attacked by other children in a playroom, possibly because the gaze avoidance is construed as submissive behaviour.

The tendency to avoid eye contact is also found in adult schizophrenics especially when the topic under discussion relates to their patient status. Paranoid schizophrenics, who feel eyes looking at them, fear the destructive effect of a glance from others.

In people who are clinically depressed consequent on bereavement, there can be selective reduction in eye contact. In rare cases of multiple personality, changes in expression of the eyes indicate the emergence of another personality.

In psychotherapy, empathic therapists who often produce the most positive changes are seen to have meaningful eye contacts with their clients. Moreover, they do not look away when the client expresses emotion. Clients, who in the beginning have difficulty in maintaining eye contact, become more able to do so with improvement in their condition. Some existentially oriented psychotherapists get their clients to ”˜commune with’ their eyes in the mirror, resulting in the discovery and expression, of feeling in an integrated way.

Paul Bakan, a psychologist, has devised an interesting and ingenious test with the eyes to determine a person’s cognitive-affective style. He uses the CLEMS (Conjugate lateral eye movements) as an indicator. If a person is asked a question and his/her eye movements monitored, an analytical, verbal person will glance upwards and to the right. Bob Hawke, the former Prime Minister of Australia, shows this pattern very clearly. People, who are artistic, intuitive, holistic and spatial, will glance up and towards the left.

There are innumerable ways in which the eye has been used as a symbol of mental perception. It is therefore appropriate to say, “I see, therefore I know.”



















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