We are soft-wired to feel other people’s emotions just by looking at them. Without any words, we feel their joy, fear or anger. Responsible for this connection are brain cells called mirror neurons. But with many social interactions taking part online, where have real connections gone?
I love the challenge of leaving my comfort zone because it is so rewarding. It is a reliable way of boosting your happiness. You know once you’ve conquered your reservations you are going to be rewarded with that feeling of being on top of the world. With this in mind, I attended an event called “Zurich’s biggest Eye Contact Experience” which was held in Zurich in July 2017.
And this time it was no different. It had been worth the courage it took. Leaving the event after three hours (initially, I had only intended to stay for half an hour to see what it was like) I felt relaxed, centered and strangely connected with life. Responsible for the ability to make connections with others through eye contact are so-called mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are brain cells in the pre-frontal areas of the brain. They were only discovered by accident. In a brain scan, scientists found that the same brain cells lit up whether the monkey opened a nut or just observed a human opening a nut. They realized that action and observation are closely related and that we are soft-wired to experience another person’s emotions as if we were experiencing them. Hence without using words, we are able to interpret the actions of other people and determine the emotions they are feeling (Kilner & Lemon, 2013).
Mirror neurons are closely related to empathy. They provide us with the capacity to understand and react to other people’s mental world and therefore play a major role in building social connections and relationships (Corradini & Antonietti, 2013).
To learn more about mirror neurons watch the following video:
If asked the question what makes worth living, social connections are always going to be on top of the list in any area of our lives. This is because we have a strong need for belonging and connectivity. Hence, our social environment is one of the most reliable sources of positive emotions.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky (2008), social ties increase our subjective well-being. What is more, working in a team with a good atmosphere increase employee engagement (Money, Hillenbrand, & da Camara, 2009; Schaufeli, 2017). And last but not least, affiliation is an important source of successful work recovery (Newman, Tay, & Diener, 2014).
Therefore, social contacts are crucial. And our ability to mirror other people’s emotions is important to build social connections. Accordingly, the driver for mirror neurons is not a vicious one but the need for belonging. However, in today’s world, a lot of our social interaction takes place online. We spend a lot of time staring at our screens instead of connecting with other people on public transportation or in the supermarket. This was the reason for Australia based organization “Liberators International” to organize the first Eye Contact Experiment Event in an attempt to show that “beyond our differences, there is love and humanity.” Since then, these events are regularly being held in different countries.
Back To The Self-Experiment
So I wanted to give this staring into a strangers’ eyes a go. When I got into Zurich where the event took place I was embarrassed to realize my biased expectation to find a bunch of females, slightly alternative, with a spiritual disposition engaged in the event. Yet what I encountered was a diverse group of people, from engineers to project managers and from teenagers to pensioners.
I stood there for quite some time and watched. Some people were holding hands during the experiment or hugged. Some of them looked as though they were saying goodbye to their best friend. It was a strange thing to witness. And even though I was reluctant to join in, I knew I had to give it a go.
Oh yes, I felt weird. My reaction to it all was clearly more flight than fight. It is amazing how easy it sounds and how difficult it is to simply look into a strangers’ eyes!
My first experiment partner was a girl in her thirties. She was sitting on a rug and was looking at the crowd. I sat down directly opposite her and introduced myself. I felt awkward. I had noticed earlier that no one actually used a watch and she confirmed that people would just the experiment for as long as it felt comfortable. So once we had exchanged names we locked our eyes.
The First Experience
She had beautiful brown eyes and was not wearing any eye makeup. Initially, my mind went crazy. Was I doing this right? What was she thinking about me? How much longer do we need to do this for? But after a while, the mind slowed down and it became almost meditative. At one stage we found ourselves smiling at each other and this marked the end of the time for our experiment. I was a bit disappointed by the fact that nothing special had happened to me. But I did feel much more relaxed after the first experiment. We briefly talked before we said our goodbyes and I moved on.
Next, I walked up to a man with blue eyes and a big smile. I immediately felt connected and happy to spend the next minute with him. After a brief introduction, we sat down and started the experiment. This time, I was much calmer. And I realized that the immediate connection I felt with him made the experiment much easier. I was able to park my gaze in his eyes and put my mind to rest. I have no idea how long we sat there, locked in a relaxed stare. I felt safe. It was quite a meditative state.
Afterward, I told him that I had felt very safe and relaxed and he confirmed that he had felt the same way. It was amazing to think that we were strangers.
Connecting with strangers through eye contact was magic, and it had a noticeable positive impact on my mood. I wanted more. There was almost an element of addiction. I ended up staying the whole afternoon.
A Touching Experience
One particular experience was profound and deeply touching. I would have guessed the woman with grey hair sitting opposite me to be in her fifties. Her smile was warm and inviting and I knew it was going to be nice to share eye contact with her. Initially, it was no different from the other experiences I had.
But suddenly something changed. I felt tears rising as strong, moving emotions started to build up. They were powerful but neither positive nor negative. I noticed that her eyes were filled with tears as well. I was bewildered, overwhelmed and deeply touched. What was happening?
All of a sudden, from the corner of my eye her face became very soft, the wrinkles were gone. It was the face of a teenager. She slowly placed her elbows on her knees and grabbed my hands, without taking her eyes off mine. We sat there for some time holding hands. It is hard to denominate the emotions. Empathy? Clarity? Acceptance? Or maybe the feeling of a shared journey.
After a while, the emotions disappeared and the connection became weaker. When we stopped and she let go of my hands I was too overwhelmed to talk to her. And it also felt as if there was nothing left to be said. We shared a tight hug and she said: “thank you”. It was my last eye contact experiment on that day.
A Take Home Message
You may have heard of the saying that we only experience ourselves in company with others. Social connections are vital to our health and wellbeing. But we do not need to know someone in order to be able to establish a connection. It is enough to have eye contact. This is due to brain cells called mirror neurons who are responsible for building social connections.
So are you ready to leave your comfort zone? If you are open-minded and thirsty for true connection make sure to attend one of the Eye Experiment events held on September 23, 2017, in many cities all around the world. Don’t miss this beautiful opportunity to truly connect with someone who you have never met before. For more information go to the eye contact experiment website and make sure to check out the video:
Take a blanket and war comfy clothes, you may stay longer than intended. Just give it a go! I would love to hear about how it went, so feel free to use the comment box to share your experience.
- Corradini, A., & Antonietti, A. (2013). Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and cognition, 22(3), 1152-1161.
- Kilner, J. M., & Lemon, R. (2013). What we know currently about mirror neurons. Current Biology, 23(23), R1057-R1062.
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want: Penguin Press.
- Money, K., Hillenbrand, C., & da Camara, N. (2009). Putting positive psychology to work in organisations. [Article]. Journal of General Management, 34(3), 21-36.
- Newman, D. B., Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2014). Leisure and subjective well-being: A model of psychological mechanisms as mediating factors. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15(3), 555-578.
- Schaufeli, W. B. (2017). Applying the Job Demands-Resources model. Organizational Dynamics, 46(2), 120-132.