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20 May 2007
The Mating Dance: The Eyes Have It
by Paul Aitken

Imagine for a minute that you're a blind man trying to meet a girl in a bar. (No, this is not a joke). How would you tell if she was interested? It's obviously possible as blind people do get laid and they don't all just walk into the bar like Al Pacino and shout out "HOOOWAH". Better yet, think of a bar full of people wearing sunglasses. Stripped of the ability to catch the other person's eye, you'd quickly find that you're missing the most effective tool in your pick-up box.

It's like trying to dance without music. It can be done, but it's hard to synchronize your movements. Sunglasses are great for scoping out chicks and gaping endlessly at cleavage, but if you ever want to do more than stare, you'd best doff those shades. Eyes aren't windows into the soul but they're windows into something.

Clinical studies using MRI and PET scans show that eye contact initiates a cascade of neural events centered mostly in the amygdala, the part of our brain that processes and directs emotional thoughts and responses. These responses aren't usually sexual. The average person makes eye contact hundreds of times a day. Contact happens so frequently and naturally that we're normally unaware of it. In fact, eye contact is most apparent when it's absent. Talking to a blind or autistic person (autistic people usually avoid eye contact) can be an unsettling experience for the uninitiated.

The ability to form and maintain eye contact is something that appears to be genetically endowed. Several studies in non-human primates (the ones we can mess with) indicate that certain neurons in the brain's visual system are specifically selected to detect eye direction. Babies only two days old make and hold eye contact. In fact, one of the charming things about newborns is their ability to hold eye contact for long stretches of time, sometimes as long as a minute.

As a comparison, most adult eye contact is less than two seconds (lovers, fighters and politicians being the only exceptions). You can get dizzy looking into a newborn's eyes. The willingness of infants to hold a gaze for more than a few seconds is largely gone by their first birthday, to be revisited only when they're begging you to buy them something.

The ability to make eye contact may not strike you as amazing, but think about what's involved. Two people can flirt with each other from opposite sides of the Champs Elysees, or the length of a subway platform. Now, consider that a set of peepers from two hundred feet away occupies less than one ten-millionth of our total visual field - the equivalent of a pair of pixels on a 19-inch computer screen. And you can tell that those two pixels are looking back at you. Not only that, but you can tell by the duration of contact what those two pixels are thinking and whether you'll be getting some tonight. A pair of pixels that can predict the future is a pretty amazing thing.

We humans are so used to loquaciously yapping our lives away that we forget just what an important medium non-verbal communication is. It is, after all - with the exception of various bird calls, grunts, whistles and whale songs - how the entirety of the animal kingdom communicates. And, of course it's how we humans used to communicate before we invented symbolic language.

The scope of this pre-verbal communication is broad. There are a whole range of body movements that convey meaning, most of these are facial. There are, for instance 53 muscles involved in a smile, each separately innervated and calibrated to convey dozens of different shades of meaning. But nothing in our non-verbal dictionary tells a story quite like the eyes. And nothing in our lexicon, verbal or otherwise (with the possible exception of kissing or shagging) packs the emotional punch we feel when our eyes connect.

But what is this unspoken language of the eyes? What does it mean when we gaze into each other's limpid pools? Well, much of this depends on how long the gaze is held and who is holding it. Extended eye contact (more than two seconds) between men is usually aggressive in intent. Between men and women, it denotes sexual or romantic interest. Essentially, if you hold someone's gaze for any duration, you're either going to fight or get laid.

The tendency of would-be lovers to make and hold eye contact has a long history; at least 10 to 15 million years, according to primatologists who have observed the behavior in baboons, chimpanzees and gorillas. They've even given it a name - the copulatory (or pre-copulatory) gaze. Baboons will sneak shy glances at one another before starting eye contact. Before chimpanzees get it on, they stare intently into one another's eyes for up to a minute.

With the exception of babies and people who are ridiculously in love, humans don't hold a gaze for that long. Even strangers making the "pre-copulatory gaze" don't generally hold that gaze for more than four or five seconds. Unbroken contact is simply too powerful, especially when coupled with a genuine smile. The intensity grows with every second. It's like two cars racing towards each other. Somebody has to chicken out or heads are going to explode. And even those four seconds are something that takes a while for would-be lovers to work up to.

In most pre-copulatory situations there is a lot of trading back and forth. Eye contact is of fairly limited duration with both sides taking turns breaking off contact. As the mating dance continues these episodes of eye contact become longer. Two seconds - I'm interested. Three seconds - I think you're great. Four seconds - Wow! Five seconds - Your place or mine? If you get up to six seconds, your stomach will be doing backflips. Any more than that and you're messing with each other's heads.

But what about situations where you need to maintain eye contact? Salespeople are notorious for holding their gaze, as are beggars, politicians and ambitious young twerps. It's how you're supposed to win friends and influence people. How do they hold contact without making us run away screaming? Well, there is eye contact and then there is eye contact. When would-be lovers look into each other's eyes, they look right in.

If there's genuine interest the pupils will dilate, igniting another sub-conscious cascade of neurological signals that the conscious mind interprets as; "Oh boy, we are gonna get so lucky tonight." But the professional gaze in not actually direct. A former bank teller I know was told to focus on the bridge of the nose. It looks kind of like eye contact but it's comfortable. You don't feel like you're being nailed to the wall.

But, if you want to be nailed to the wall or if you... ahem... want to do the nailing, be prepared to sink right in. But don't over do it. Eye contact is like tennis. You want to get a volley going. If she's always the one breaking off contact, chances are you're creeping her out. After all, nobody wants to screw Norman Bates.

Related articles:
The Virginity Trap
Better Dancers Score Higher In The Romance Stakes
Creative Spark Means Artists Have More Success At Sex
Glasses A Handicap For Picking Up The Opposite Sex
Why Nice Guys Don't Get Laid
Blissnosis - Enlightened Seduction

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