This is about humans, but first we’re going to talk about wolves and dogs. You’re not a wolf, and that’s a good thing. Wolves are extremely intelligent animals who are adept at navigating their own ecology, including through complex strategic cooperative hunting. But even after being reared by humans, wolves can’t see humans as social partners (Gácsi et al., 2005; Miklósi et al., 2003). Dogs, on the other hand, can – and they benefit from seeing us as individuals who can support them in times of need.
A few years ago, scientists conducted several research studies investigating the social and cognitive differences between dogs and wolves (Gácsi et al., 2005; Miklósi et al., 2003). In one study, both dog and wolf puppies were shown a plate of food that was placed just out of the animals’ reach. Unsurprisingly, the animals tried in vain to access the food. The researchers had set up the study so that the task was not a physical task, but rather a social one: to get the food, the animal had to look back and meet eyes with the human. After just one minute, dogs’ eyes started looking toward the human’s, and this difference between dogs and wolves was statistically robust after four minutes. Let us consider the nature of this feat: it requires that the dog recognizes that the problem cannot achieved alone, but rather depends on connecting with someone else. The key was recognizing that the problem could only be solved through communication and interaction. Dogs can do this. Can’t we?
Eye contact isn’t easy. Engaging in eye contact increases cognitive load. That is, it consumes the same mental resources that our minds use when we are trying to solve complex tasks or engage in logical reasoning. Researchers have demonstrated this effect by showing that participants perform better on complicated tasks when their eyes do not meet the eyes of another human, an effect that holds true not just for visual tasks (Buchanan et al., 2014; Conty, Gimmig, Belletier, George, & Huguet, 2010) but also listening- and speaking-based tasks (Kajimura & Nomura, 2016). And eye contact isn’t just cognitively difficult – it’s also emotionally challenging. Feelings of embarrassment, shyness, and guilt are all also associated with avoiding eye contact. So, if eye contact is so hard, why should we do it?
Well, eye contact is important and valuable precisely because it activates important emotional areas of the brain such as the amygdala and facilitates the release of the hormone oxytocin. When we share eye contact with another, greater levels of oxytocin circulate through our bodies. This hormone facilitates feelings of emotional closeness and connection with others. And because we are more comfortable engaging in eye contact with people that we feel close with, these oxytocin-based feelings of closeness enable us to further deepen our (new) bonds. Indeed, when we have higher level of oxytocin in our veins (in our urine, really – Nagasawa et al., 2015), our own affiliative behaviors increase oxytocin concentrations in others. In my view, that is such a beautiful feedback loop. And it’s a loop that takes us back to another loop: that of this article, which began with dogs. When dogs are given oxytocin, their eye contact with us increases, and guess what? That increases our own oxytocin levels (Nagasawa et al., 2015).
Eye contact is an opportunity and a challenge. Let us rise to the challenge. When we do, we start a brain- and hormone-based feedback cycle that promotes social connection. Dogs can teach us so many lessons through their unique wisdom. In this case, they’ve taught us the importance of recognising that the key to solving our problems is through connecting with others, even through something as simple as making eye contact.
Buchanan, H., Markson, L., Bertrand, E., Greaves, S., Parmar, R., & Paterson, K. B. (2014). Effects of social gaze on visual-spatial imagination. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 671.
Conty, L., Gimmig, D., Belletier, C., George, N., & Huguet, P. (2010). The cost of being watched: Stroop interference increases under concomitant eye contact. Cognition, 115, 133-9.
Gácsi M, Gyori B, Miklósi A, Virányi Z, Kubinyi E, Topál J, & Csányi V (2005). Species-specific differences and similarities in the behavior of hand-raised dog and wolf pups in social situations with humans. Developmental psychobiology, 47(2), 111-22.
Kajimura, S., & Nomura, M. (2016). When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation. Cognition, 157, 352-357.
Miklósi A, Kubinyi E, Topál J, Gácsi M, Virányi Z, & Csányi V (2003). A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Current biology, 13(9), 763-6.
Nagasawa, M., Shouhei, M., Shiori, E., Nobuyo, O., Mitsuaki, O., Yasuo, S., Tatsushi, O, Kazutaka M., & Takefumi K. (2015). Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds. Science, 348(6232), 333-336.
Image at the top by by Maria Biella, Lecco Italy, 2016.