Cover your mouth with your hand and you can still use your eyes to convey most emotions. You’ll flutter your eyes to flirt. Blink rapidly to hold back tears. Or you’ll smize – the Tyra Banks-perfected practice of smiling with your eyes by stretching them like a lemur in the night. The eye’s architecture is one of the most complex elements humans possess. A structure so carefully and artfully designed that the brain devotes a third of its energy on making sure our eyes function efficiently. Though our eyes serve as our prime secret weapon to lure singles at a bar, we also rely on them to register other emotions like fear and sadness. It’s these traits that build our empathetic muscle.
In fact, those with impairments in the eye region might help mental health care professionals address youth who present with psychopathic tendencies, like callous and unemotional traits. Callous-unemotional traits in children include a consistent disregard for others’ emotions as well as an extreme lack of empathy. One study found that a group of kids who presented with these callous-unemotional traits had specific problems when attending to the eyes of other’s faces. It didn’t matter whether the person was happy, sad, or angry – the child couldn’t accurately assess which emotion was conveyed. But, when this group of kids was asked to look at the mouth region of others, they were able to report the emotion and showed no differences to kids who lacked callous and unemotional traits. So, when someone is conveying that they feel scared by widening their eyes, a person with psychopathic traits might exhibit fear blindness and won’t be able to register a victim’s fear. In effect, they lack empathy due to eye impairment.
A study by Dr. Yoast Van Baardewijk further tested this empathetic theory by comparing kids with high callous-unemotional traits to those with autism; both groups show a characteristic neglect of the eye region. However, the reasons for this deficit are different. Autistic individuals avoid eye-gaze because they lack social awareness to maintain eye contact, whereas those with callous-unemotional traits might show inattentiveness to the eyes due to deficits in brain areas, like the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear and anxiety.
Other research by Dr. Mark R. Dadds looked into whether eye contact contributes to psychopathic-like traits. His research suggests that one’s caregiver might play a role in recognizing emotion in another’s eyes. The idea is that caregivers who properly attended to their infant by feeding them when hungry and providing warmth and comfort by constant eye-gazing, modeled a set of appropriate emotions. But, caregivers who were neglectful and failed to attend to the child’s needs might also have averted eye contact and failed to model appropriate emotions.
There are a slew of characteristics that we can remain cognizant of when treating youth who present with callous-like traits and one of those is children who have a deficit in recognizing another’s eye region. It’s this specific area where empathy is registered. On a more practical level, when taking to the streets of NYC, we can use our eyes as signals to people of our own emotions. We can also show that we understand where others are coming from by locking eyes and directing our gaze. Stretch your eyes and you just might build your empathetic muscle.
Kristine Keller received her Master’s in Psychology from New York University. Have a question for our Street Shrink? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Street Shrink” in the subject line.
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