Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
Love. It’s the stuff of poetry—the stuff of life. However, few poets have examined the science behind why we fall in love. Professor Vishton offers a cognitive neuroscience take on love and explains precisely why the eyes are so powerful.
Science of Love
Before delving into the connection between love and the eyes, let’s take a moment to appreciate just how monumental this subject is.
“All is fair in love and war.” “A flower cannot blossom without sunshine.” “A man cannot live without love.” These are just the first of about 15,000 quotes you get from a simple Google search. Love is perhaps the most powerful of all human emotions.
Love can inspire human kind to be innovative and creative or it can also lead toward terrible warfare. The drive to be loved might be the most basic of human drives.
No culture has ever been found that didn’t have a word for love or didn’t have it as a central, highly celebrated aspect of existence. Even if a human child gets all of its biological needs for existence met—food, water, air, shelter, warmth—the child will die if it doesn’t experience a loving connection with at least one other person.
We don’t just crave love. We need it. However, few have attempted to explain the mechanisms of love from a scientific perspective. What does your brain look like when it’s in love? More specifically, how is your brain different when it’s in love versus when it isn’t?
Love: It’s in the Eyes
“When I think of the woman I love, I think about her eyes—other things too, of course, but those eyes just come to mind immediately,” Professor Vishton said.
Eyes matter a lot when it comes to attraction and love. When surveys ask people to name their favorite feature in romantic partners, eyes are always near the top.
Eyes can be beautiful, of course. That’s part of it. However, cognitive neuroscience has also revealed a variety of information that our brain captures from eyes that’s important for attraction and the formation of a romantic relationship.
Some studies have suggested that the ratio of eye size to ear size is a predictor of reproductive success. As we age through adulthood, our ears continue to grow, while our eyes tend to remain about the same size.
Thus, as we get older, the eye-to-ear ratio gets progressively smaller. Evolution may have thus selectively bred us to look for potential mates with eyes that are especially large relative to the size of the rest of the face.
The Power of the Pupil
One particular part of the eye works as an important form of social communication—especially communication in potentially romantic situations: the pupil. Many factors can cause your pupils to vary in size.
Normally the muscles that control the size of your iris—the thing that surrounds your pupil—are based on the amount of light hitting your eyes. In bright light, the pupils contract.
In dim light, they dilate to allow more light into your eye so you can see better. Interestingly, your brain is wired to also dilate the eye muscles when you see someone for whom you feel romantic attraction.
Humans are very sensitive to these changes in pupil size when they’re looking at another person’s face. A variety of studies have been conducted in which participants were asked to view a selection of face pictures and rate them.
Sometimes those ratings are of how beautiful or attractive the faces are. Sometimes the ratings are of how likely you would be to do something altruistic for this person. For many ratings of this type, if the face is looking directly at you with very large pupils, your ratings will be significantly increased.
Trust Breeds Love
It’s not just that beautiful people tend to also have large pupils. If you modify an image to make the pupil larger, the ratings will increase. Even participants’ ratings of how much they trust someone can be increased by artificially causing pupils to dilate.
“I think it’s intuitive that trust and love certainly tend to go together,” Professor Vishton said.
According to Vishton, the evidence from this research demonstrates that you should make sure someone can see your eyes if you want attraction in a relationship. Phone calls and texts are sufficient when you must be separated, but face-to-face interactions are central. As you develop an affinity for someone, your pupils will communicate that—but only if they can be seen.
Dark glasses can look really cool, but make sure that you don’t wear them all of the time that you’re interacting with your potential romantic partner. This could hinder their sense of how attractive you are and how much you can be trusted.
The results also suggest why we tend to take potential romantic partners to dimly lit restaurants. Large pupils make everyone, it seems, look more beautiful by candlelight.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.