Making eye contact is something most of us do without much thought. It’s a standard part of our social repertoire, so casual and intuitive that we manage it with hardly any cognitive exertion, which is how we generally like things.

It’s only when eye contact produces unexpected results that we remember what a curious phenomenon it is. Once I was caught in traffic on a dicey stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Scanning the scene, I briefly made eye contact with a homeless man making haphazard progress down the sidewalk. He was tall and painfully thin, with long, matted hair and a feral aspect. When our eyes met, he grew incensed and darted off the curb to stomp a dent in the fender of my Honda. A bus nearly struck the man while he was venting his rage, but I don’t think the close call bothered him much. Responding to my inadvertent breach of civil inattention, he took what he surely felt was an appropriate countermeasure. I left the dent in my fender as a reminder of how quirky life can be.

Whatever communication took place that day between me and the homeless man, it was implicit and one-sided. Implicit communication is disturbing to word-friendly types like me. Although I manage to make eye contact at the appropriate moments, that wink and dodge seems capricious.

Yet implicit communication is essential in certain situations, especially those involving motorists and pedestrians. It’s not possible to discuss your intentions with the driver of an oncoming car. Yet here, too, the results can be unexpected. As a friend once said about Toronto taxi drivers, “If you make eye contact, it just gives them an excuse not to stop.” She meant that Toronto hacks interpret your glance as permission to blaze through the crosswalk. Her observation contradicts the standard advice given to pedestrians, which is to make eye contact in order to ensure that drivers see you.

So eye contact signifies a great deal, if only by implicit means. Implicit communication and explicit communication are different, and each has a distinct appeal. Some people prefer to communicate explicitly, taking comfort in the seeming exactitude of words. Others prefer to communicate implicitly, taking pleasure in that strange mixture of intuition and conspiracy we experience when we communicate with winks, gestures, or words that carry veiled or alternate meanings.

Managing eye contact is something we learn to do as children. I remember finding it difficult, when I was about four, to make eye contact with my father. Even then I understood the crucial dilemma. Looking directly at my father’s eyes seemed confrontational. Looking away seemed shifty and evasive. To resolve my discomfort, I began looking at his mouth, or slightly below it and to the left. I have relied on this stratagem all my life, up to the present day.

Do you remember learning to make eye contact as a child? What was it like for you?

Eye contact is also a distinguishing factor among animals. Dogs do it. Cats don’t. Horses meet your gaze with meekness and humility. Our budgie made no eye contact at all. Our guinea pigs do, their eyes piercing and vulnerable. But does eye contact mean the same thing to all members of the kingdom Animalia? If animals are social, as some surely are, how do they feel when they meet the gaze of others like themselves? How do they feel when they look into the eyes of other animals—or into ours?

Among humans, people with autism often avoid eye contact. The reason for this avoidance is unclear, but the effect is disconcerting. Autistic children are achingly remote. You get the boy in the bubble effect, a fey, beautiful child who whirls around the room, oblivious to your voice and gaze. To know someone with autism is to grasp anew what makes us human.

Eye contact also has great significance in art, at least in Western art. Bosch, Breughel, Velasquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Beckmann all depicted the human gaze with powerful effect. If I were an art historian, I might lose myself in this terrain, never to emerge.

In paintings like Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller, a gypsy girl and her mark gaze on one another, their eyes expressing naivete, guile, and erotic longing. In Rembrandt’s self-portrait, the artist renders himself with candor and acuity, his eyes the glowing center of the image. The self-portrait belongs perhaps in a category by itself. If viewing art is an act of witness, then being observed by the subject of the painting deepens the act. Perhaps this is another instance of the conspiracy element in communication, the subject-artist in cahoots with the witness.

We say the eyes are windows on the soul, meaning a type of spiritual port into one’s innermost being. Artists have long captured the eloquent expressive power of the human gaze. More recently, the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen  and other scientists have begun to identify the neural circuitry that enables us to make eye contact. But understanding the operation of these circuits hardly lessens the mystery—not of eye contact itself, but of the consciousness on which it rests, and why we find the meeting of eyes so essential and so disturbing.

© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.