Our eyes are the windows to the soul—or so the saying goes. They are the gatekeepers of the mind; the doorways of the heart; and the sentries upon the towers. Poetic as these phrases may be, reality is not too far behind. In a very real neuroanatomical sense, to look into someone’s eyes is to gaze upon the throne room of the mind—their brain. While we are yet inside our mother’s womb, the developing human brain differentiates into three portions: the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. As the forebrain grows into what will eventually become the cortex, it sprouts two unique vesicles. These vesicles extend and grow like the stalks of a plant, cupping themselves into the familiar ocular form. These optic cups are the premature inklings of what will become the retina; which is where light come to once it enters the eye. Unlike the rest of our sense organs, our retinas are a unique extension of our brains (Bear, Connors, & Paradiso, 2007).
Our eyes reveal much about our inner mental states; they reveal our wants and desires. When love is felt between two people and their eyes meet, their pupils relax and dilate as if to let in as much of the person’s light as possible (Gowin, 2010). Love is the poetry of the senses; it is two stringed instruments echoing the same song; it is one emotion inhabiting two bodies. Our brain picks up the subtle changes in the diameter of the other person’s pupils, and hormones release that increase our attraction to them. Their eyes tell us they love us, and our eyes become psychologically primed to see them more attractive. Our eyes then dilate in response, and the emotion resonates and reverberates between the two people.
Our eyes can also reveal our decisions. One experiment by Daniel Kahneman (2013) had participants perform various math problems with a camera intently gazing at their pupils, measuring their diameter. The pupils contracted when mental effort was exerted; but relaxed and dilated when the individual gave up on the problem. By looking at someone’s eyes, psychologists were able to know the exact moment someone surrendered to the problem. Kahneman reportedly surprised his participants by asking them why they gave up, long before the person made any conscious decision to express it.
Our uniquely human eyes reveal our designed dependency upon one another. They, above all other faculty, declare us a social species. No other primate has a noticeable sclera. That’s over 200 species of animals that include lemurs, apes, and monkeys; all of which do not have easily visible whites in their eyes. We are unique in this respect and unlike them; our sclera allows for the easy detection of a glance. Human infants can follow the direction of a gaze long before they develop a language with which to communicate their thoughts (Senju & Csibra, 2008). In contrast, primates and many other species of animals, seem oblivious to gaze; they instead follow the movements and direction of the head.
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When a monkey looks at an object not in line with the direction of their head, its fellow monkeys are fooled by the discrepancy. In contrast, our eyes cannot naturally hide or deceive others. Our ability to follow each other’s gaze makes us fundamentally dependent on one another for information: “If I am advertising the direction of my eyes, I must be in a social environment full of others who are not inclined to take advantage of this to my detriment. . . Instead, I must be in a cooperative environment where others following the direction of my eyes somehow benefit me” (Tomasello, 2007).
How we look at others can affect how they see themselves. One set of experiments explored how a researcher may unknowingly be communicating their expectations upon a participant, nudging them towards their desired outcome (Rosenthal & Fode, 1963). Two groups of students were given lab rats and asked to rate their performance on a maze. One of the groups were told the rats were highly intelligent; the other group was told the rats were slow and incompetent. As a result, the volunteers were unknowingly treating each set differently; seeing in them what they thought they should be seeing; handling them in ways that reinforced their expectations. Interestingly, despite all the rats being identical, they each began to display the behavior which the students were primed for—the “slow” rats became slower and the “fast” rats became faster. This became known as the Pygmelion effect.
Unfortunately, these effects apply to humans as well, and are particularly visible in our education system. Teachers at one school were presented with false information their new students; they were told some where late bloomers and others were high performers. The teacher’s expectations tended to become self-fulfilling prophecies, affecting the children’s intellectual development in subtle ways. The “high-performance” kids began to outperform their counterparts. The Pygmelion effect works through a positive feedback loop: how we see others tends to affect our behavior towards them; and our behavior towards them impacts their beliefs about themselves, which in turn affects their behavior, affecting how we see them (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).
We cannot always control how others see us. People will often hurt us, perhaps intentionally but most often unintentionally; they will see us with their expectations, with unwelcoming eyes, maybe with judgmental eyes. But we can learn to get our recognition from God. To see ourselves as God sees us, for we are the apple of His eyes. As the popular motion picture, The Prince of Egypt, suggests in one of their songs: “You can never see through the eyes of man, you must look at your life, look at your life through Heaven’s eyes.”
Given that love seeks no ill towards others, and love is the fulfilling of the Law, our eyes are therefore witnesses to the law in a very real sense (Romans 13.10). They bear witness that we are not intended to hurt and mislead others; that we depend upon one another for the truth. Unfortunately, we are a highly tribal people. Some people are the world to us and others hardly matter at all. Strangers do not compel us to compassion, but rather to caution, fear, and exclusion. But Christ teaches us to break through these borders. He teaches us that our moral obligations extend beyond those whom we know and trust. He teaches us that the mere presence of a stranger, makes him a neighbor, and thus worthy of love (Bloom, 2014).
Bear, M. F., Connors, B. W., & Paradiso, M. A. (2007). Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Bloom, P. (2014). Just babies: The origins of good and evil. New York: Broadway Books.
Gowin, J. (2010, July 08). Beauty is in the eye: A window to your soul, brain. Retrieved from Psychology today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you- illuminated/201007/beauty-is-in-the-eye
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Rosenthal, R., & Fode, K. L. (1963). The effect of experimenter bias on the performance of the albino rat. Behavioral Science, 183-189.
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupil’ intelectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Senju, A., & Csibra, G. (2008). Gaze following in human infants depends on communicative signals. Current Biology, 668-671.
Tomasello, M. (2007, January 13). For human eyes only. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/13/opinion/13tomasello.html
John Bryan studied psychology at the University of Central Florida. He hosts a small blog at www.johnbryan.blog