Sensing Loneliness: How Making Eye Contact Connects Us

Michael O. Schroeder


You feel out of touch with your partner -- who is texting. You just yelled at one of your kids -- over your tablet. Hustling into the office, you missed a co-worker's polite good morning glance as you got online.

In short, you're a bit less than interactive. Fortunately for you, it may be a temporary thing. But for all that we communicate by text, email, direct message and otherwise electronically, research finds much is lost in exchanges that don't utilize our senses. While for some that could spell little more than fleeting disconnect on a hurried day, experts say for others, "socializing" primarily sans senses can exacerbate feelings of isolation so common in modern society.

"In the U.S., there's -- I would say -- a loneliness epidemic," says Emma Seppälä, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, California. Seppälä, author of the book "The Happiness Track," out later this month, adds that 1 in 4 Americans say they have no one to talk to about a personal problem. "Loneliness and lack of social connection has been linked to anxiety, depression, slower recovery from disease. It's been linked to premature death, and it's linked to suicide as well as antisocial behavior," Seppälä says. The latter can perpetuate the problem.

So what does all that have to do with you not meeting anyone's gaze this morning -- with your only conversation today being haphazardly hammered out on a keyboard? "We are so wired to communicate through our entire physiology," Seppälä says. In most instances, that initial connection -- the conversation we begin even before we say a word -- starts with our eyes. And new research out of Japan shows that when orbs talk, our brains end up on the same page.

The study published this month in the journal NeuroImage found that mutual gaze -- making eye contact -- synchronizes activity in certain parts of the brain for those individuals interacting, and that such synchronization is critical to the success of face-to-face interactions. "In this study, we found that sharing attention is associated with synchronized eye movements/blinking and brain activation," says the study's lead author, Takahiko Koike, an assistant professor at National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Okazaki, Japan, in an email. Researchers used scanning technology to look at brain activity while participants interacted. He notes that while much attention is paid to what we say aloud, under the surface we may mutually and unconsciously pick up on social signals from one another when we make eye contact. Instead of being an added bonus accompanying communication, the research finds eye contact is a critical part of the conversation. "We unconsciously interact [with] each other through simply gazing [at] each other," Koike says.

What inspires researchers to verge on the poetic goes well beyond any sunset-pink-tinged vision of drinking in a lover's gaze, too. Not only does making such a sensory connection allow us to empathize better with others, whether connecting with a positive or negative emotion, but it turns out aligning our gaze serves another utilitarian purpose as well. Recall, your teacher reminding you to keep your eyes focused on the front of the room.

"There's something special about joint attention," says Elliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene, of his takeaway from the Japanese study. "Joint attention is just looking at something together -- two people looking at the same thing at the same time." In addition to studying mutual gaze, or participants looking into each other's eyes, researchers looked at the effect of people's joint attention. The latter -- as with teachers and students being on the same page -- appeared to play a role in brains syncing. "Merely just looking into people's eyes didn't cause this ... synchronization of eye blink. It was really only after you had that joint attention first. So there I think it tells a very functionalist story." But compared with prior research findings, the researchers found that synchronization wasn't attributed to merely doing the same activity, either, but to mutual gaze.

One example of this outside the lab is a child who isn't old enough to speak, but can still follow his parent's gaze and look upon a shared object. Perhaps the parent is teaching him the name for a toy -- and then the child looks back into the parent's eyes. "Because that's how we learn language by sort of looking at what other people are looking at, when they look at it, and so you can kind of focus on the same thing," Berkman says. "Shared attention is a critical, if overlooked, aspect of social interaction."

Conversely, challenges to achieving shared attention can slow learning and development, and are reflected in issues, like autism, marked by difficulties with nonverbal and verbal communication. But for those who may be unable to see another person -- whether because of a physiologic issue, like blindness, or a logistical one, say, they're speaking by phone and not face-to-face -- there is some research to show brain syncing can occur when we hear one another, too, Seppälä says. "We're so programmed to register other people with our senses. I think where you really see a problem with communication is when the communication is only verbal," she says, such as through text or email. "I think that's the bigger point to make given how much communication happens online or virtually."

Particularly as it relates to younger generations, concerns are increasing about such non-sensory communication replacing traditional face-to-face interactions -- or even phone calls or other technological-enabled interactions, like through FaceTime, that at least engage our senses, in part. While social media and other online communication may be enriching in some ways, psychologists say a loss of communication that engages all our senses could further contribute to feelings of isolation that exacerbate mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Seppälä's advice: "When you're with people, put your technology away. Look at them. Be with them, because those moments are getting fewer and scarcer." Apologizing for waxing philosophical, she adds: "That's what life is all about. Right? It's not about interacting with an object."


Michael Schroeder is a health editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at mschroeder@usnews.com.