Eye contact is the most basic interaction with another person.
When people look into each other's eyes, they spontaneously indicate that their attention is focused on the other person.
If the look is returned then a channel for interaction is opened.
Eye contact has been described as the 'window into the soul' and is a powerful social signal.
Past research has identified specific brain patterns associated with locking eyes with someone or looking at someone who isn't returning your gaze.
The term 'approach motivation' is applied when two people are looking at each other and 'avoidance motivation' described when one person looks at someone who has their gaze averted.
These terms would imply that catching another's eye is both critical and desirable.
Nevertheless, there are many who find it uncomfortable and become anxious when they are under someone else's gaze, even just for a short period of time.
Researchers at the University of Tampere, Finland and the University of Tartu, Estonia have set out to define if personality can regulate how a person reacts to eye contact and if this can be measured by brain activity.
The study involved, getting participants to look directly at another person, look directly at someone who was looking away and to look directly at someone who had their eyes closed.
This study has shown that personality influences the way the brain reacts to attention from another individual. This study highlighted the association between neurotic tendencies and eye contact.
Neuroticism is a long-term personality trait that is associated with anxiety, frustration, jealousy, worry, loneliness and depressed moods.
Participants who scored high for neuroticism were seen to want to engage in direct eye contact for less periods of time and experienced more pleasant emotions when looking at someone with an averted gaze.
"The results showed the correlation between neuroticism and brain activity patterns only when brain activity was measured in response to eye contact. Thus, the observed result is very specific to eye contact," commented the study's leader, Professor Hietanen. "Facing another person who was not looking at the study participants (eyes averted to the side or eyes closed) did not reveal the association between personality and brain activity."
Fellow researcher Dr Uusberg explains, "We were also glad to show the differentiation of two aspects of neuroticism called 'withdrawal' and 'volatility' on the level of cortical activity. The two aspects are conceptually somewhat different. Withdrawal is related to anxiety, depression, high self-consciousness, and feeling vulnerable. Volatility, on the other hand, is related to liability, irritability, angry hostility, and impulsiveness."
People not only feel different when they are the center of someone's attention, but the reaction their brain has is also different.
Certain people will find that eye contact wires the brain in a way that makes them more likely of initiating interaction with other people.
For others, eye contact may decrease that chance.
The researchers in this study are currently working towards understanding different effects, which modulate the physiological reactions to eye contact and if psychotherapy could possibly change them.
There are many questions still to be answered, but this study motivates us so that we might all be a little more confident in catching someone's eye!
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