The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Body parts. Paired organs of vision, the movementslid positions, and pupil size of which reveal a great deal about our emotions, convictions, and moods.
Usage: Gaze direction clearly shows others where our attention lies. We have developed an amazing ability to gaze back into the eyes of our beholders to gauge their feelings. However, being looked at so arouses the sympathetic nervous system (see FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT) that we may feel compelled to glance away. Perhaps because the eye's retina is an outgrowth of the forebrain, peering into someone else's eyes is not unlike seeing into the brain itself. This may be why the sacred Eye of Horus (the All-Seeing Utchat of Ancient Egypt) had so many complex meanings.

Anatomy. The resting position of an open eyelid is maintained by the levator palpebrae superioris muscle. Relaxed, the lower lid barely touches the bottom circumference of our iris, while the upper eyelid covers a good deal of its top. When excited, we widen our eye opening (or palpebral fissure), and narrow it when we feel threatened. Sudden eyelid closure is part of a protective, mammalian facial grimace brought on by the startle reflex (Salzen 1979). Widened eyes reflect emotions of the fight-or-flight response (see FLASHBULB EYES).

Culture. "Oriental jade dealers wear dark glasses, so that they do not give the game away when they see a particularly good example" (Morris 1994:198).

Evolution I. Our golf-ball-sized eyes glissade in bony sockets above the nose. Their spherical shape may be traced back to amphibian ancestors of the Carboniferous period (earlier, eyes had been flat and fishlike). Large eyes today accent the horizontal aspect of our face by counteracting the verticality of our nose.

Evolution II. Light-sensitive eyespots originated more than 500 m.y.a. in animals without backbones. Despite their primitiveness, or perhaps because of it, horizontally paired eyes are the primary focus of the human face today.

Fascination. We are enthralled by eyes. From the moment of birth we respond to our mother's eyes as if programmed to do so. Babies smile at black geometric spots--perceiving them as "eyes" by six weeks of age (Kandel et al. 1991:994). In adults, eye contact shows personal involvement and creates intimate bonds. Mutual gaze narrows the physical gap between us.

Primatology. As primates, for whom facial expressions provide key social and emotional information, we continually probe each other's eyes for positive or negative mood signs. We are acutely aware of being noticed by strangers. In waiting rooms we periodically glance up and scan for roving eyes (much as do monkeys in a cage).

True feelings. Eyes appear in the human embryo by ca. 22 days of age. From that time--through an incredible chain of neural commands--eyes accurately reflect how we feel about and relate to the people in our Nonverbal World. Eyes convey unpleasant feelings through closed eyelids and an averted gaze. Positive or provocative feelings show in openedeyelids, dilated pupils, and direct gaze (cf. PHARYNGEAL ARCH).

E-Commentary: "I would love to know what 'bedroom eyes' look like? Might want to consider adding to your Dictionary. Thank you." ?PictoRL Software Group, USA (9/14/00 5:56:35 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes I. Suddenly narrowed or slitted eyes may reveal disagreement or uncertainty. A quick tightening of the eye-orbital muscles (i.e., of the orbicularis oculi, which we tense to show pain [Prkachin and Craig 1995]) hides much of our iris and eyeball behind lowered hoods. Negative feelings associated with doubt or misunderstanding (i.e., cognitive dissonance) quickly pass from the limbic system to the hindbrain's facial nucleus (cranial VII), which triggers a brief narrowing of the eyes as if to protect against emotional "pain."

Neuro-notes II. Rest-and-digest nerve fibers activate the pupillary sphincter muscles of the irises to constrict the pupils. Fight-or-flight nerve fibers from the superior cervical ganglion activate dilator muscles to expand the diameter of the pupils.


Photo of "Guileless Eyes" (San Diego, California, USA) by Doreen K. Givens (copyright 2004)