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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

The Eyes Are The Windows To The Soul

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jan 4th 2009

This article is a re-issue of the one published a year ago, on September 22, 2008. Some revisions have been made and some items have been added.

While I was reading some postings in our support community this morning it occurred to me that the issue of "eye contact" is actually quite important. Several people were commenting about their struggles with making eye contact in their communications with medical doctors and other types of "authority figures." Therefore, I thought it important to write this posting about "eyes" in order to discuss the various meanings of making and avoiding eye contact.

It is not known who wrote the words, "The eyes are the windows to the soul." It may have been written by an Arab of ancient times or from the Old Testament version of the bible. But, no one really know.

Of course, the meaning of the words is that by looking into the eyes of a person one can see their hidden emotions and attitudes and thoughts.

Studies in psychology show that the human infant responds directly to parental eye contact. In fact, even the youngest infants prefer staring at any shapes that resemble the human face. More than that, they prefer adult faces that stare directly at them rather than with eyes averted. Anyone who has bottle fed or nursed an infant cannot help but notice how the baby"s eyes stare directly into their own. Through this eye contact, the infant learns a lot about human communication and interaction. Considering the fact that much of human interaction is non verbal in nature, eye contact is a major medium through which we communicate our needs and wants. 

Language is filled with metaphors referring to eye contact. During the Cuban Missile Crisis during the early 1960's it was said that the Soviet Union "blinked first." The meaning was clear in that the Soviet Union submitted to American pressure. Other metaphors are those such as: He or she had a "cold stare," the eyes were "steely and hard," she had a "penetrating look," shame faced, the child "stared at his shoes," Through the "fog of war," it is difficult to see the outcome of battle, "He and I came to see eye to eye," and their are thousands other such metaphors referring to the eyes. 

Having grown up in New York City and frequently travelled the subway system, I soon learned, along with millions of other New Yorkers, the importance of avoiding eye contact with other passengers. The reason was simple: Direct eye contact can easily be mis perceived by a stranger as a challenge to fight. Many paranoid patients report that the feeling of being stared at feels like an aggressive attack. In fact, some paranoid patients have been known to make drawings of the human head and figure with unusually large eyes. The grossly distorted drawings often represent looking out suspiciously into what is perceived as a dangerous and aggressive world.

In fact, it is often said that, much like in the animal world, when two men who are strangers stare at each other, they are sending the challenging and dangerous message about being willing to fight. This is sometimes verbally expressed as "get out of my face, man!!" Another verbal challenge to the stare is, "What are you staring at, man???" This is said in a loud and aggressive way. People even speak of power struggles with another by "staring them down." On the other hand, when a man and woman stare at one another, they are communicating sexual interest. The eyes can be used in ways that are coy, seductive and inviting of sexual interest between man and woman.

Many decades ago, before I entered the field of mental health, I was a High School teacher in New York City. It goes without saying that the youngsters in my classes came from culturally diverse backgrounds. Early on I was mystified as to why my students from Puerto Rican backgrounds averted their eyes when speaking to me. Initially, and as a very young man, I feared they were showing me "disrespect."  I was very young and inexperienced teacher and human being. Where I was raised, parents and teachers demanded eye contact when I was being spoken to. That was a sign of respect. It seemed natural to me that the students were challenging my authority when they refused to make eye contact. I soon learned that I could not be farther from the truth. The fact was that these students, coming from their particular culture, were showing me the greatest respect by averting eye contact. That piece of knowledge turned out to be enormously important to me in helping these, and other young people, learn and advance.

Early in my mental health training there was a young adolescent who, upon seeing me, closed her eyes. This psychotic patient thought that by not seeing me, I would not see her.

Children love to play the staring games with each other. The idea of the game is to see who can stare the longest without laughing or blinking. The child who laughs, blinks or averts the eyes first is the "loser." In this way, children are engaging in a kind of "arm wrestling contest." The winner is the "strongest."

It is commonly known that a child could have serious developmental disabilities, such as autism, if they constantly avoid eye contact. This is a good indicator of a child who has problems with social interaction.

Those who are shy may have difficulty with eye contact out of a sense of embarrassment. This is why blushing can be so very painful for those with a tendency to easily blush when speaking to people. Their discomfort is about the notion that the blush will reveal their shyness. My strategy for people who have struggled with this is to embrace their shyness and openly and proudly admit it.

The eyes are frought with all types of symbolic meanings for human beings.

What are your experiences with eye contact?

what metaphors and meanings do you associate with the eyes?

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    eyes are the window to the soul - stephen - Nov 26th 2014

    Could the phrase mean that what you actually see through your eyes is just yourself, all your relationships are just really you?

    Eye Contact - Jucole - Jul 20th 2011

    I've learned about love & attraction through eye contact. A couple of men have fallen for me just by prolonged eye contact. Another man that I fell deeply in love with only expressed his love for me through body language & eye contact. He had a serious issue with communicating love verbally, but was very open with hugs, kisses, holding hands, & prolonged eye contact. He was also very protective, but would get very defensive if I asked him directly to express his feelings for me.

    Eyes what do they really imply ? - Lady Diana Pineda - Apr 28th 2011

    Eyes as the windows to one's soul.What it can actually show doesnt really mean what it tries to define..Emotions may define on looking into one's eye. SOme people would try to hide that emotions so not to make the other person worry. Some do it a form of a shield covering and trying to forget things in the past.

     

    It can mean in an ambigous ways; You either need that person for your protection, You want him to look after you and feel secured. You want that person to look and say Im your knight in shining armor. Romantically speaking its funny but true.It can mean that you want that person near you; it can mean a form of respect, affirmation to something and submission.   Lifes mysterious ways of defining why eyes are the windows to one's soul imply many things that we can never imagine.

    Intimacy - Bill Tracy - Aug 14th 2010

    At one point, I facilitated inmate groups in prisons (anger management, parenting education, etc.). I always included a discussion of eye contact as a huge part of non-verbal communication. As you can imagine, inmates avoid eye contact because of the perceived agressiveness of it ("mean mugging"). I would take them through a brief history of eye contact in the animal world and in other cultures -- and how this contrasts with the meanings of eye contact in the U.S. culture. Understanding more about eye contact made it less threatening for them.

    Personally, I am comfortable with eye contact, and I can put other people at ease with it. However, I always filter out much of the available reality because the intimacy of it is simply too frightening for me. I came to this understanding as I saw how I look at pictures of people. In photographs, I don't feel a need to employ the filters, and I always see far more than I am comfortable seeing. Such intimacy would be too much for me in person. I always feel as if looking into the eyes of a person as I do with a photograph would frighten that person as well as making it perhaps impossible for me to interact in socially acceptable ways.

    When I photograph people, I always focus on their eyes; I know that's where their essence will be.

    Bill Tracy

    Angels Camp, CA

    The Eyes - - Jun 27th 2010

    I feel you can tell alot about a person, by the way

     

    My experience - Donald sangster brown - Feb 20th 2010

    My thanks for this document,i think it very important.younger, i was okay,now i have problem making eye contact with some people,then,i feel bad about my self especially with women.i am 44 i notice the change early teens i drank lots of alcohol for that and other problems now i cant drink any more my stomach cant take it so i am back at square one searching for answers differently,and i met this page.

    My experience - Irma Jean - Oct 3rd 2009

    For many years I had a great deal of difficulty with eye contact. I was socially anxious and shy and it didn't come naturally. As time has gone by, being in the retail field for 14 years and going through therapy, I am much better now with my eye contact. I really think the key is relaxing and just being yourself, without trying too hard to do it "right". And the best way, I've discovered, of doing that, is to think of the person you're talking with and not yourself. I used to practice this in therapy with my therapist. It can be a very powerful experience to let oneself be completely seen by another. But this extended eye contact would be reserved for only the most intimate of relationships, I would think. Overall, my more positive interactions of eye contact with others has increased my confidence socially.

    looking through - Lena - Jul 12th 2009

    Sometimes i feel like people don't see each other anymore. We have such busy lives that  we end up looking thorough, instead of at each other. i attribute this to the disconnection between humans now a days, we seem to go through our lives pretending that others don't exist. But when I have gone through the day smiling and looking into everybody's eyes directly and friendly, i feel that they are more at easy and happy around me. 

    WINDOWS TO THE SOUL EXPERIENCE - Sean Sullivan - Apr 29th 2009

    Hey im 19 and ive delt with alot in my years and one is helping people...One thing i have noticed is that when i am helping people and i think you touched the subject when your helping people... they are more confortable that you look them in the eyes because you are truly listing and also...it has helped me from people that lie... because the eyes NEVER lie.. i ahve noticed this. Eye contact is different with certain people some think that you are analyzing them and others think that you are just trying to be nice. I just thought i should give you this just because its intresting to me.

    More on Eye Contact - John D. Husband - Feb 13th 2009

    In my book, Single Over Thirty," there's a chapter on eye contact which examines why men have such trouble making eye contact and women don't. My subsequent research showed eye contact is a very big deal to the U.S. Secret Service, horse trainers, lovers, lions on the savanna, little boys and little girls, muggers, male predators, wild prey, and fathers while in the process of verbally disciplining their children.

    I found your web site when I tried to find the author of the quote, "The Eyes Are the Windows of the Soul."  Yours was the only reference to Shakespeare -- including Bartlett's quotations.  Someone else referenced the Bible, but he turned out to be wrong.

    Eye contact - JR - Sep 24th 2008

    I am a rather shy (my wife says "reserved") person, and have always had some difficulty with making and maintaining eye contact.  Over the years, I have developed a conscious practice of maintaining active eye contact in the course of conversation, in the sense of looking, dropping the eyes, looking back, and so on.  Even now, it can still be difficult to do - but the alternative of dropping the eyes for long periods definitely impedes communication.  In spite of my own difficulty, I myself cannot help finding significant avoidance of eye contact on the part of others rather odd.

    As to "eyeballing" as a signal of hostility - this seems to be pretty basic among advanced mammals.  Those of us who serve the requirements of cats (who regard themselves as considerably more advanced than ourselves) may be familiar with their "slow blink" - where the eyes are gradually narrowed or closed, whether towards a fellow cat or a human.  Like another feline behavior - turning one's back on another cat - this has been interpreted as a signal of non-hostility.  "I cannot attack you, or defend myself, if I cannot see you, so you need not worry", seems to be the message.  Unfortunately, among humans, slow-blinking and back-turning are likely to come across as more strange than merely keeping one's eyes down!

    Best regards,

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