Nov 122010

I’ve been thinking about eye contact.

Seen Coraline?


Making up a song about Coraline,
She’s a peach, she’s a doll, she’s a pal o’ mine.
She’s as cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline!

When she comes around exploring Mom and I will never ever make it boring –
Our eyes will be on Coraline!

Now the “eye” thing is part of the story – in the alternative world, everyone has buttons for eyes.

But what’s compelling about the idea of button eyes, anyway, and of having eyes on someone?

David Richo condenses human social needs into the “5 A’s” and one of his “A’s” is ATTENTION. Being seen as your full self and taken seriously. From this, he says, we learn self-esteem. We learn that we are worth paying attention to.

Consider the little kid calling, “Look Ma, no hands!” when she’s riding her bike. Why does it matter if Ma looks?

There’s a story Dustin Hoffman tells about Lawrence Olivier – starts around 1:50 below:

“What’s the reason we do what we do?” Hoffman asks Olivier. Acting, he means.

And Olivier gets in his face and says: “Lookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatmelookatme.”


Half the human cortex is visual cortex, committed to processing visual information. The back half of your brain, approximately. Vision is important to our species. Eye gazing between infants and adult caregivers elicits attachment behaviors; between adult lovers, it shifts sex from passionate to profound.

It’s complicated by culture of course. I had a meeting with a student a while ago, and every time I got into didactic mode her eyes shifted to the floor and I was like, “Is she listening? Is she bored? Is she annoyed?” Her responses all indicated that she, like, totally got what I was saying and was into it. It took me like 15 minutes to figure out that this was a cultural difference, based on respect for the “dominant person” (uh, me, apparently) in the conversation.

There’s all kinds of power stuff involved, and eye contact often mediates conflict. And humans can tell what someone else is looking at by seeing where their eyes go.

Probably this has something to do with the importance of facial expressions in predicting others’ internal states, which is a key human skills. But that doesn’t make it less astonishing that a pair of goo-filled globs popping through the skull, attached to the brain by a string of meat, could be the source of so much information and power. Does it?

Button eyes. Our eyes will be on Coraline. Look at me. Stephen Sondheim knows it, too:

Not to mention “Our Town” and that whole bit about how people don’t look at each other.

So. Like, ya know. Look at each other. Don’t forget. Is what I’m trying to say. With your goo-filled globs on strings of meat. Look.

emily nagoski

  3 Responses to “other father – aka “look at me””

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  1. Then of course we bring into play the difficulty many on the Autism spectrum have with eye contact.

  2. But that doesn’t make it less astonishing that a pair of goo-filled globs popping through the skull, attached to the brain by a string of meat, could be the source of so much information and power.”

    And that’s particularly true if, like me, you don’t have any eyes. What to make of the great mystery of eye contact?

    I have no conscious memory of sight, having lost it around or before the age of 1. For most sighted people, vision seems to be their dominant sense with, as you say, all that cortex to process all that information. Therefore any dialogue with the always blind has some mutual incomprehension built into it. Sighted people can’t help thinking of blindness in terms of sight lost, whereas for me, visual information is information that does not, and never has existed. for my part, while appreciating that eye contact is so important if you can do it, I have no way of really understanding how it feels to be able to communicate remotely and wordlessly. In terms of how I have to do things, this strikes me as both miraculous and dangerous.

    So the unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable question is how much have I really lost in the area of communication? How much better would I have done had I been able to see. Humans are very adaptable creatures of course, and we make the most of the information we have. This is probably easier for me, without the massive output of the visual cortex, which might (might) drown out other cues.

    Anyway, this is all fascinating to me, if intractable. Thank you as ever for launching your ideas – entertaining and didactic – I bet you’re a really good teacher.

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