Eye contact and love — what’s the science behind it?

A crowded room, 2 strangers catch each other’s eye and cue the lyrics to Dusty Springfield’s The Look of Love. It’s the classic cinematic ploy used to bring together the romantic protagonists of a love story. But have you ever wondered why romantic encounters are so often depicted by longing looks and dreamy gazes? As opticians in the City of London, our team at OPTIX Opticians are forever thinking about eyes and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, we thought we’d share a little of the science behind that famed look of love.

Why is eye contact important?

Before we delve into why eye contact can pull at your heart strings, it’s useful to recognise that looking directly into the eyes of others is important in almost every aspect of our lives that involves interacting with people. It’s almost instinctual. Swathes of research have probed the importance of eye contact, including a study at Northeastern University in Boston, USA.

The researchers found that we perceive those who make more eye contact to be more intelligent, sincere and conscientious. These are traits that can bring you gains in all walks of life. Making eye contact is, therefore, in your best interests when it comes to winning over friends, family, colleagues and even strangers. Just make sure you don’t hold that gaze too long as research published in Royal Society Open Science revealed that most people become uncomfortable after 9 seconds of eye contact when a reassuring gaze quickly turns into an awkward stare.

So what about eye contact and love?

With eye contact already such a powerful tool for communication, it isn’t surprising that when it comes to love, the eyes have a lot to say for themselves. While meeting the gaze of a potential love interest may send your heart aflutter, it also stimulates a host of activity in your brain.

For those who aren’t romantics, love at first sight may sound like a Hollywood cliché. But the truth is sharing eye contact with someone does elicit a sense of connection. Research in the Journal of General Psychology reveals that a shared gaze causes us to see a stranger as closer and more similar to us. And in the game of love, similarity is often the first box that gets ticked when determining compatibility.

Love is a drug

The psychology behind the power of prolonged eye contact is backed up by biology as it is suggested to cause the release of hormones associated with attraction and affection, specifically phenylethylamine and oxytocin.

Phenylethylamine stimulates your brain in a similar way to amphetamines and can make you feel like you’re on top of the world; for comparison, another activity that boosts its levels is skydiving.

As for oxytocin, it is the ultimate love drug and not just in the romantic sense. Yes, new couples have higher levels of this hormone and it is released during intimacy but it is also involved in bonding mothers to their babies.

Making your move

Let’s get back to that crowded room across which you’ve spotted a potential love interest. Once that first intense gaze has passed and perhaps with some encouragement from your friends, you move in for a bit of conversation and that’s when sparks start to fly. Your eyes become a clear giveaway of your attraction as you start to blink more often and your pupils dilate — both established signs, in scientific terms, of heightened focus and in dating terms, of attraction. If you’re trying to play it cool, don’t worry, these signs aren’t easy for your love interest to detect on a conscious level.

However, on a subconscious level, research shows dilated pupils are perceived as attractive. In fact, the pull is so strong that in a famous study by Kellerman, Lewis and Laird, complete strangers who were paired up to gaze directly at each other for 2 minutes found feelings of “passionate love” were stirred. Clearly, the eyes have quite some pulling power.

After all these years

So far, the connection between eye contact and love has been all about that honeymoon phase when your body (and your hormones) are doing a lot of the talking. But the eyes still have an important role to play for those who are in love even after years of being together. In yet another landmark study on love, often cited as the first of its kind to empirically measure love, Harvard researcher Zick Rubin revealed that couples who were together after several years, and still deeply in love, maintained direct eye contact when talking to each other 75% of the time compared to the average of 30–60%.

It’s all in the eyes

When it comes to love, if you aren’t one for whispering sweet nothings or grand declarations, you can still say you care with your eyes. From that first look to those daily interactions, making eye contact can be a powerful message of love.

With your eyes being such an important part of your Valentine’s Day romancing, don’t forget to give them some TLC too. We have a host of stylish eyewear in-store to frame those beautiful orbs of yours. From Cartier and Chanel to Lindberg and Tom Ford, a world of eyewear you’ll love awaits when you visit OPTIX Opticians.