Eye contact is a primary interest of mine. It feels like the most raw and deliberate form of human communication. If we think about language as a good enough medium for getting information from one mind to another, that is, adequate for getting an occasional idea across but fundamentally a category shift that only gestures towards rather than captures our intentions, then eye contact represents a method of direct communication. We rely less on eye contact and more on language for organizing the social world because eye locks are less susceptible to being watered down and ordered in the way that speech can.
In the fascinating Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, the authors explore a student’s insightful leap regarding the notion that people with blue eyes are often considered particularly evolutionarily advantageous. The idea was, roughly speaking, that because blue eyes are lighter, it is easier to detect the size of the person’s pupil (with larger pupils signaling interest) when a person’s eyes are blue rather than brown or green or hazel. Easily detectable interest in others is itself an evolutionary advantage because people are going to be more willing to take the risk of implicating one in a sexual encounter if they can easily detect that person’s interest.
I’m commonly preoccupied by the long-term implications of everyday events. For instance, it’s clear that we can be mistaken about our own intentions. We can be telling ourselves stories about our actions while doing something for reasons that are hidden from our conscious viewing. For example, we might tell ourselves we are attracted to Jane because she has a natural way of relating and she makes us feel good about our weaknesses, but on some unconscious or semi-conscious level, we’re detecting her pupil size and realizing we have a better chance of getting into a reproductive scenario with her than her friend Emily. Or to zoom out, we can tell ourselves stories about why we want to become actors or painters, saying that we want a medium through which to express ourselves, when really what we want is to not die, and one anti-death method that is pleasurable as well as reliable is finding a sexual partner, reproducing and maintaining our genetic line, and success at a creative enterprise is going to increase our chances of successfully playing out this long-term survival strategy.
Every human relationship I’ve had has been maintained by conversation. Of course, there are people with more relational sophistication than me (those who successfully communicate with the deaf or people with cognitive impairments) but much of the time, our everyday interactions run on language. However, people are born and people die over glances that cannot be reduced into sentences. Considering that all human connection depends upon the knowledge that the other is able to understand and react to what we’re trying to get across, and considering that eye contact is a primary means of establishing this fact in everyday interactions, it seems to be a representation of how we can be confused about the primary phenomenon that is creating our life circumstances.