A recent study found that extended bouts of eye contact could trigger “dissociative symptoms, dysmorphic face perceptions, and hallucination-like strange-face apparitions.” Sounds like a fun experiment to try at home, right? Maybe—if you can stomach ten minutes of direct eye contact.
For the study, Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo had 20 people stare into one another’s eyes in low light for ten minutes at a time. In a post published today at The Guardian, Chitra Ramaswamy relays some of Caputo’s findings:
[He] found that gazing deeply into someone’s eyes can alter consciousness, produce hallucinations and create feelings of dissociation. The results, published in Psychiatry Research, revealed 90% hallucinated a deformed face, 75% saw a monster, 50% said their partner’s face morphed into their own and 15% saw a relative’s face. Basically, looking into a person’s eyes can be seriously trippy.
Twenty is a pretty small sample size, so grain of salt and all that (although, Caputo has shown in previous experiments that staring at one’s own reflection for extended periods of time can produce a similar effect). But let’s look beyond the methods and results for a second.
To me, what’s interesting about this study is the attention it calls to how little time we spend staring into the eyes of our closest friends and loved ones. To share a gaze with someone is to partake in a decidedly intimate experience, but it’s one we rarely engage in for more than a few seconds. Why is that?
Are we afraid? Is it awkward? If it is awkward, why is it awkward? Eye contact is important! Eyes are remarkably expressive, and our brains are tuned, from an early age, to parse the information they convey. We even know that eye contact facilitates bonding between human mothers and their infants, and that dogs may rely on it to forge closer relationships with their owners. And yet, just thinking about staring into a loved one’s eyes for ten minutes makes me feel kind of anxious—and kind of silly, too, for feeling that anxiety.
Ramaswamy captures this sentiment perfectly in her description of what happened when she reproduced Caputo’s experiment with her partner, “C”:
I feel nervous, which seems ridiculous considering I’ve seen C lose her father, she’s seen me give birth and hers is the face I’ve looked at most in my adult life. But what if it is the equivalent of feeding a mogwai after midnight and C goes all gremlin on me? Will I ever look at her in the same way again? Also, we had a fight earlier. Maybe now isn’t the best time to be gazing into each other’s eyes, looking for monsters.
With all these misgivings pouring out of the windows to my soul, I set the stopwatch and we’re off …
Ramaswamy’s account has inspired me to try this with my own partner. And it’s not the hallucinations I’m most curious about (though I’m obviously interested in those, too). It’s seeing where my mind goes when I’m locked in a deliberately extended stare-down with someone I care about.