Friday 23 March 2018

Katie Byrne: the eyes have it

What can we learn from looking into somebody's eyes?

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The French portrait photographer Réhahn made a name for himself this year when his project, Eyes of the World, became an internet phenomenon.

Réhahn's work - stunning close ups of people's faces - captures the exquisite complexity and infinite mystery of the eyes, just as it shares the stories that only the eyes can tell.

"Sometimes, eyes can express more than words," reads a caption alongside a photo of a little girl in his series. "Can you read in her eyes?"

I'm glad he asked that question because, yes, I think I can. And I think you can too.

There are numerous studies that prove that the eye is so much more than just a sense organ.

An oft-cited one from Orebro University in Sweden linked certain patterns in the iris with personality traits. A more recent study found that infants can read emotions in split seconds by looking at the whites of our eyes.

We ooh and aah when we hear of studies of this nature, but haven't we known this all along? Pain. Love. Hope. Fear. The eyes tell all - even if we choose not to see it.

Bedroom eyes, kind eyes, twinkling eyes, dead behind the eyes… this study is simply further proof of the infinitesimal calculus we perform when we meet someone's gaze.

Maybe it's all to do with light. I've seen the black dog of depression turn piercing green eyes sludgy grey, just as I've seen the whites of the eyes gleam when clarity returns.

Or maybe it's something more: 36 Questions That Lead to Love was another internet sensation this year. For the uninitiated, it was a series of increasingly candid questions designed to bring two people closer together. The crescendo of this social experiment is the final step - participants must stare silently into each other's eyes for four minutes. Tantric practitioners call this 'soul gazing' and while it might not make you fall in love, it'll certainly bury any bad feelings.

Love is expressed through the eyes. I've seen ex-boyfriends fall in love with me - a sort of bemused glaze comes over the eyes - just as I've seen them fall out of love with me. Eyes can close in more ways than one...

I've also been lucky enough to fall in love at first sight. It's like seeing an old friend or hearing a familiar tune. You know the lyrics, you just can't remember the name of the song. And again, it's all in the eyes.

How can a black hole in the middle of a swirling nebula look like home? How can omniscience be conveyed in a blink?

My father often didn't know who I was during the later stages of his dementia, yet when I looked into his eyes I saw complete recognition of something that was way beyond.

When we let someone look into our eyes we let them into our kingdom, or at least it feels that way. It reminds me of the Rumi poem - "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there".

Eyes tell the truth just as they exact it. Another study, published in Evolutionary Psychology, found that the presence of a pair of eyes - even in a photograph - may unconsciously discourage people from lying.

Eye contact can be a contract too. I remember visiting a food truck at Electric Picnic in the early hours of the morning after my friend and I realised we had no cash left until the ATMs reopened later that day.

I asked to speak to the owner before explaining to her that we had no access to the ATM machines but if she could just give us two ham and cheese toasties and two Kinder Bueno milkshakes then we would come back with the money in the morning and nobody would get hurt.

"How can I refuse those eyes?" she smiled.

Charles Darwin wrote that eyes were so complex in their design that it almost made the concept of natural selection "absurd in the highest degree". Word.

Indeed, the eyes - or is it the gaze? - are behind many unexplained phenomena. How do we know that someone is looking at us, even from afar and even when our back is turned to them?

Elsewhere, a psychologist in Italy has figured out how to induce a drug-free altered state of consciousness by having volunteers stare into each other's eyes for 10 minutes.

I partook in a similar experiment for a book I'm writing (on shelves in January 2026, based on my current level of productivity) and I can confirm that that stuff is whack...

Many of us have uttered the platitude about the eyes being the window to the soul, yet few of us talk about what this might tell us about consciousness and the cosmos.

All the secrets of the world are in the eyes - I'm sure of it.

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