From the time we are born we have a fascination with the eyes. They are our primary go-to facial feature, even in infancy, for information about others. From determining if others are paying attention to us, or whether they are happy to see us, the eyes have it hands down. In fact, our emotional state is often writ large in our eyes. We can unequivocally say that pain, suffering, exuberance, incredulity, doubt, disappointment, yearning, love, kindness, hatred, and indifference, as well as fear, can all be observed in the eyes even before a word is spoken
So much has been written about the eyes, perhaps because no other organ of the body communicates as much. While the eyes may be, as Shakespeare said, “windows to the soul,” and worthy of our attention, as with everything else about body language one has to be careful what we interpret through those windows.
Connected to our visual cortex through the optic nerve and the optic chiasm, the eyes receive nonverbal communication at the speed of light, unlike the much slower auditory channels. It is an exquisite organ — its main purpose is to collect information. That ability has given us an evolutionary/survival advantage wherein we can not only assess for threats as far away as the horizon, but also decode the behavior, intentions, and body language of those close to us.
The eyes see both what is in focus in front of us, but also what's coming from the sides, peripherally. That peripheral information gets absorbed by the brain subconsciously, which explains why when the mind drifts off in thought while driving, we may still get home safely. Somehow the eyes take it all in and that information, even out of focus, makes its way to the various areas of the brain so that we can survive and thrive.
As we communicate with others, our eyes may look down as we ponder a thought or a sentiment or we may look in the distance or at the sky. It is a mere reflection of our brain as it processes information; in the same way, we may bring our thumb and index finger to our chin in a pensive manner as we ponder or reflect. For those of us who observe nonverbals, it is useful only in knowing that the person is contemplating or reflecting on a thought or emotion. We must not assume that a person lies because he looks in one direction and then another as he answers a question — there is no scientific evidence to support that.
It is true that our pupils will constrict when we see things that need to come into higher focus or when we see something threatening in the distance; while our pupils will dilate to let in more light when we see something beautiful, attractive, or desired. Similarly, we open our eyes wide when surprised and tend to squint when we are focused or troubled by something.
The orbits of the eyes delight in seeing others we like through an eyebrow flash (a quick or dramatic arching upward of the eyebrows — a gravity-defying behavior) that communicates excitement and positive emotions. Babies love when we flash our eyes at them, and so do adults when we are greeted by friends or even as customers at a store. Incidentally, it is also a powerful tool to use when making virtual calls; it makes others feel special.
When we are around people we like, we are relaxed enough to be able to look away as we speak, there being no requirement to hold a gaze. Not so when we are being interviewed for a job, when eye contact is obligatory. And of course, there is no science to support that liars tend to look away. Liars actually engage in greater eye contact, not less, as they seek to be believed, according to famed researcher Aldert Vrij.
We touch and rub our eyelids many times during the day as we deal with particulates in the air or changes in humidity, but also when we are suddenly stressed. The man who is asked to help someone move heavy furniture will cover his eyes with his fingers, rubbing them as he answers, “Yes I will help you,” when no doubt this will be an inconvenience. This eye touching, a form of eye blocking behavior, authentically reveals how he feels, even though he agrees to assist. Eye blocking behaviors such as shielding the eyes, lowering the eyelids for a prolonged period, and delaying opening the eyes are so hard-wired in us that children who are born blind, when they hear something they don’t like, will also cover their eyes, not their ears, despite the fact that they have never seen.
Somehow these behaviors help us to deal with negative thoughts or stress and so they remain with us. After all, the mere touching of the eyeballs through the eyelids sends signals through the Vagus nerve, to the Oculocardiac Reflex of the brain, which helps to calm us by slowing down the heart. This may explain why any time the stock market has a bad week, we see photographs of traders with their fingers pushed deeply into the eyes—arguably in disbelief but also, no doubt, to find relief.
Over the years much has been written about eyelid flutter and increased blink rate. The two are not the same. In people who stutter or struggle to find words, or are flummoxed, their eyelids will quiver momentarily enough to get noticed in those moments. That is a natural reaction to an unnatural circumstance.
An increase in blink rate can be caused by environmental factors (such as dust or pollen), maladies of the eyes including infections, new contact lenses, or by stress. Whatever the cause, all we can say is there is an increase when we notice it. Once more, increased blink rate has nothing to do with deception, but rather reveals only stress or anxiety — sometimes caused intrinsically (by thoughts, fears, or apprehension), and other times extrinsically, by such things as suspicious or aggressive questioning, refusal to be believed, violations of space, unnecessary touching, aggressive staring, or the mere presence of individuals we may not like.
As an ethologist, I principally look at the eyes to tell me when someone is comfortable and relaxed. I also look at the eyes to tell me when someone is suddenly troubled by a subject or an event. Immediately I will see the orbits narrow — what I call the Clint Eastwood effect. (In those Italian Westerns, right before he was going to shoot, he always squinted.) Squinting, or the narrowing of the eye orbits, indicates, very accurately, discomfort, stress, anger, or issues. I have capitalized on this behavior in negotiations as opposing counsel reads each paragraph out loud; we could see which articles in the document were going to be problematic by the squinting of the eyes.
But perhaps there is one more important thing to be said about the eyes, and that is how we look upon others. In my latest book, Be Exceptional: Master the Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart, I write of famed primatologist Jane Goodall and the difference she has made in how we look upon each other and the world. With those same eyes, we can do it gently and kindly, or with cold indifference:
Jane Goodall changed how we study animals by being humane, she did not look upon primates with clinical superiority, as many scientists before her had. She looked and gazed with wonderment and care, appreciation, concern, and an enlightened awareness of their unique traits. As a result, she saw with penetrating detail: the exquisite bond between a chimpanzee mother and child; the permissiveness they grant their offspring to play, fall, and express their personalities; the dalliances and naughtiness of the older apes as they seek to establish their relationships; their tool-making abilities that shocked scientists and that they pass on to their offspring as if in a classroom; their grieving and mourning for their loved ones; the jealousies and aggression that at times can be frightening, as well as their warmth and need for gentle hugs and kisses, which they serve up judiciously to maintain their social order.
No scientist had looked upon primates in this way. Goodall changed the study of animals and how we perceive primates in particular because of how she viewed our nearest relative. She had the same set of eyes as other scientists; it was just how she put them to use.
Perhaps most interesting of all, the apes themselves recognized her benign and empathetic interest and permitted her to get closer than anyone had before. Goodall’s caring observation allowed her to gather even more information because she could observe from the intimate vantage point conferred by her trustworthy behavior and empathy for the animals she was observing. It was these experiences, I would argue, that helped Goodall shape how she views humanity, and that love and kindness we feel in her presence or through that screen, is due in part to how she uses her eyes to look upon the world.
While our eyes gather information, they also communicate something about ourselves, our curiosity, our wisdom, our travails, our empathy, our love, and our humanity. As far as I know, it is the only organ that we have that can do so.
In these times of restricted travel and COVID-induced mask wear, it is in the eyes once more that we look to for that humanity, that kindness, those gravity-defying behaviors that say they care. Those glorious eyes we often take for granted yet reveal so much to us and about us.
Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H. S., et. al., 2011. Evaluating truthfulness and Deception: New tools to aid investigators. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (June): 1-4.
Navarro, Joe. 2021. Be Exceptional: Master the Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart. New York: HarperCollins
Navarro, Joe. 2018. The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. New York : Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every BODY Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Vrij, A. 2008. Detecting lies and deceit: Pitfalls and opportunities (2nd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.