It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. “I could see it in her eyes,” “His sad eyes gazed upon her,” “He had an evil gleam in his eyes.” We could probably find hundreds of these common expressions without trying.
The eyes do more than just see, and you don’t see with just your eyes. Antoine d’Sant Exupery’s Little Prince once said, “It is not with the eyes that one sees, but with the heart.” Apparently the Little Prince anticipated contemporary research. Carl Bach Y Rita has done some amazing experiments with how the rest of the body sees. By attaching electrodes to the tongue for example, a blindfolded and muffled person can still easily catch a ball rolling across a table. Although some scientists feel that sensing in this fashion is not seeing, the jury is out. Blind people’s visual cortexes light up in brain scans while they are reading braille. Bach Y Rita believes that the entire sensory system participates in what we call seeing, and that we can develop our senses even more. (See Discover Magazine, June 2003).
Your eyes also play a major part in keeping you balanced as you move through space. The eye muscles connect to neurons that determine distance, dimension and orientation. This neural network joins with your vestibular system (which keeps you vertical). When you faint, or go to sleep, where do your eyes go? If you guessed that they roll up into the head, you’re right. What is the relation of this movement to loss of verticality? Look at someone’s eyes who is afraid of falling. You’ll probably see a fixed stare, or an anxious darting back and forth. In both cases, the eye muscles are not relaxed, actually increasing the chance of falling. The eyes’ power to communicate probably goes back to our prehistoric ancestry. Wide eyes, dilated pupils indicate receptivity or fear depending on your situation. Biologically, it is the look of prey. Because of it, people with dilated pupils signal that they are available, an easy mark. Women used to even put belladonna in their eyes to dilate their pupils, thus making them apparently more attractive. Small pupils, narrowed eyes, indicate hostility. Could that be the steely eyed look of a predator?
When you meet someone with soft, relaxed eyes, you feel reassured that this person can take care of the situation. On the other hand, a person with a permanent deer in headlights expression can seem tense, frightened, or even belligerent (if they are hiding their fear) Why? When the eyes are relaxed, one is actually able to see more – a bigger picture. Our reptile brain feels reassured because it is able to scan. When the eyes are relaxed, as they gaze upon any situation, nothing interferes with looking and turning the head, or taking an action. The movement of the eyes often commands the response of the head in turning, mobilizing the entire body. Someone with bulging eyes often has tension in the neck which makes a quick escape and an ability to “see everything” more difficult. They have to figure out clever ways of negotiating through challenging situations because the eyes can’t help. We narrow our eyes to sharpen focus on an object, or to be able to see more clearly an object at a distance. It’s a fine line between narrowing the eyes to focus clearly, and squinting. When we notice a person narrowing their eyes, we know we are being “focused upon.” This is why the look feels predatory – it’s as if those narrowed eyes are assessing us – a judgement or criticism feels emotionally like an attack. We even use expressions like “His eyes narrowed and with a wicked smile, he zeroed in for the kill.”
Your eyes are held in place by 3 sets of muscles that let your eyes track whatever objects come into your vision. For a nice description of how the eyes move, and why, go to www.innerbody.com/text/nerv07.html. By learning to relax these muscles, you can soften your gaze and consequently, improve your vision. Relaxing the eyes also often helps relieve headaches and neck tension, since the eye muscles are connected to head and neck movements.
Moshe Feldenkrais, the developer of The Feldenkrais Method¨, once said, “If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.” The great actor Giancarlo Giannini once said he spent an hour and a half every day doing eye exercises in order to communicate his feelings intentionally on camera.
While it is interesting to observe other people’s eyes and try to understand their expression, it is infinitely more rewarding (and challenging) to study your own eyes, from the inside out.