What does it mean when you find yourself staring someone right in the eyes, locked in their gaze?
Eye contact can be a mode of flirtation, or the way to make an important point (or maybe you're just being creepy). But if you participated in the four-minute eye contact exercise as part of the New York Times' infamous 36 questions experiment, you might have realized something else: Eye contact is a powerful key to intimacy.
Out of the norm: We don't look people in the eyes as often as we think we do — especially those we care about. Many of us feel eye contact is simply too awkward to sustain, or we're worried it will be misinterpreted. More tellingly, studies have shown that the more physically close we are to a person, the less eye contact we make with them. If eyes are the window to the soul, as the saying goes, we avoid peering in because we know just how vulnerable it can feel being on the other end.
Sure enough, when media site SoulPancake asked six couples in different stages of their relationship to stare into each other's eyes for a few minutes, the common reaction was "I've never done anything like that."
Automatic bonding: Marital therapists and researchers alike believe that incorporating more eye contact in relationships can increase closeness. One study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that strangers who were asked to stare into each other's eyes for two uninterrupted minutes reported "increased feelings of passionate love for each other" and increased likability.
During her 36 questions experiment, which she famously documented for the New York Times, Mandy Len Catron attempted to make eye contact for four straight minutes with her date and found that "the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me," she wrote. "I felt brave, and in a state of wonder."
That's because staring, like touch, creates instant bonds. "Researchers have found that the 'bonding' or 'love' hormone of oxytocin gets released during prolonged eye contact. This is the same hormone that gets released when mothers breastfeed and gaze into the eyes of their infant," Kelly Campbell of California State University told BuzzFeed.
It's why so many peoples broke down in tears when they stared at performance artist Marina Abramovi? during her "The Artist Is Present" performance, or why eye contact leads us to perceive others as friendly. "Eye contact is an excellent way to foster intimacy because we express so many of our feelings through the eyes — actually, the muscles around the eyes," Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Mic.
A sign of real love: It's no surprise, then, that frequent eye contact is a hallmark of loving relationships. A frequently cited 1970 study from social psychologist Zick Rubin that attempted to measure romantic love tracked the eye contact of couples left in a room alone together. The results? Couples who reported higher amounts of love in their relationship also looked each other in the eyes much more than couples who were less in love.
In fact, Rubin also discovered that two people in conversation normally make eye contact 30% to 60% of the time, "but couples who are in love look at each other 75% of the time during conversation and are slower to break their look away from each other when interrupted," reported Scientific American.
The "advantage in an intimate relationship is that by looking directly at your partner, you show that you're totally focused on what your partner is saying," said Whitbourne. "Maintaining eye contact shows that you feel relaxed and open with this person."
Small move, big meaning: How much we look into someone's eyes not only helps establish intimacy, but also reveals how much intimacy might already be there. Whether a sustained look over eight seconds suggests we can fall in love or an extended gaze indicates we think someone is smoking hot, we say a lot with our eyes.
We may not always think to do it in the rush of our busy days, but locking eyes is one of the smallest but most meaningful moves happy partners make. As one man in the SoulPancake video says, "When I look at you really closely, I realize how much I need you and what you really mean to me."