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Holding Gaze

October 10, 2015

Every reasonable seven-year-old has an admittedly overactive imagination. And I was no exception. Unfortunately, the thing about getting older is that as we learn more and learn to develop more realistic expectations of the way the world works, we tend to forget the fantasies we used to imagine about the world. And I've certainly imagined a lot, but forgotten most of it. Who hasn't?

But I do recall one of the more interesting and thought-provoking ideas I dreamed up way, way back. And to nobody's surprise, it involves superpowers and some mad heroics.

I used to imagine a world where other people could tell exactly where I was looking, every second of my day. Not just in the sense that they could tell where I was looking by my eyeballs, but in the more superpower-kind of sense that they had some sort of laser vision powers to trace my exact field of view and follow my gaze everywhere I looked. And following the superpower analogy, this power of being able to triangulate someone's exact field of view is so useful because to a certain degree, it allows the possesser of the power to read minds. It's the standard narcissistic affair of a child, imagining the possibility that I was so significant in the world as to deserve some sort of a superpower that allowed everyone to exist for the purpose of observing where my eyes fell. But it also makes for an interesting way to see how our eyes tell more than our words.

When you stop and think about it, where we look and what we see is so much of how we experience the world ourselves, but it's also a huge part of how others experience the world. Or, more accurately, how people experience and interact with a world that's full of other people. Why?

I'm going to begin with the cliche that the eye is the window to the heart. It's the trapdoor that opens up a way to look underneath someone's made-up fa├žade. And the way we see someone is always a combination of the things we see on the outside -- the things each of us advertises about who we are -- and the things we see through someone's eyes -- the parts of a person kept inside, visible through the metaphorical windows to the heart.

Why are eyes the windows to the heart?

So why are eyes the windows to the heart?

We can start with what we use eyes for -- seeing things. And because vision is the vast majority of our knowledge of the world, if our eyes are looking at something, there's a good chance that it's also the thing we're thinking about. So by noticing where our eyes land, you can tell what we're focused on. In a sense, you can literally read my mind through my eyes.

You can read my mind through my eyes.

There was a book I read some time ago, where the main character got a hold of a pair of glasses that allowed him to read people's minds -- text bubbles would literally pop up over people's heads when he looked through these magical goggles. It's a childlike idea, but noticing where people are looking has a similar effect -- it's a way to see what's on people's minds. It's the reason it's rude to look at your watch during conversations, or look out the window during class. It's the reason you look at the person you're talking to, and elementary teachers ask for "your eyes, please." Whatever you're thinking about, your eyes are aimed at. That's cool, and it's probably the reason we focus on other people's eyes so much when we interact with them.

Yes, it's obvious. Of course, it's obvious. But to me, it's also interesting to break it down and think more deeply about it, about why we talk so much about where our eyes are looking during conversations or interactions. Exactly how much do our eyes correspond to the things on our minds? I don't know, but the answer is probably pretty interesting, and definitely worth looking into.

But eyes don't just tell you where I'm looking; it also tells you if I'm annoyed or tired. It tells you if I'm nervous or bored out of my mind. It helps us express where our brain is, but it also helps us emote. Often times, just our eyes can show how we're feeling -- no words, no smiles, no tears necessary.

Our gaze is a mixed library of what we think about and how we think about them. It's a small condensation of the things on our minds at any given moment. And maybe that's why we focus so much on our eyes in conversations, in speeches, in empathy. There might be no mind-reading goggles so far, but knowing what holds our gaze is gets us pretty close.