Eye Gaze in the specific context of Speaking Circles practice refers to a state of being in soft-focused eye contact with one’s listeners in a way that is personal enough to be human but relaxed enough to be “beyond the level of individual personality.”
Prolonged Eye Gaze (usually for a few seconds or more), coupled with a breath focus with multiple members of an audience, one person at a time, is one of the primary ways for speakers to access the state of Relational Presence with their audience, forming the cornerstone of Speaking Circles practice.
More generally in human behavior, eye gaze is critical for processing social signals. We use eye gaze, including focused eye contact and inspection of facial expression, to predict another’s intention and mental state.1 Infants begin to use eye gaze socially at around four months of age. An infant’s eye contact with their caregiver may influence the development of typical social gaze behaviors1 and also directly reflect the infant’s attachment and comfort with their mother.2 The amount of eye contact between a mother and her newborn may also correlate with her sensitivity or capacity for attunement.3 Shared eye gaze thus underlies and is formative in the development of social communication.
Meeting another’s gaze is usually associated with positive regard and interest, although it can be stressful for those with social anxiety, who may fear what they feel is the judgment of intense scrutiny.4 This may be related to the status hierarchy associated with direct eye contact (e.g., staredowns) in humans and non-human primates.5
In Speaking Circles, Eye Gaze is directed by the Facilitator and is an invitation for conscious connection. The Facilitator ensures that there is time for uninterrupted speaking, or no speaking at all, and sustained reciprocal gaze. Eye contact in this setting, where speaker and audience become connected, can engage brain pathways (e.g., mirror neurons) that elicit behavioral mimicry, such as mirrored facial expressions and body postures, which is likely to be the foundation of social engagement and responsiveness.6
While direct gaze activates brain circuitry that supports processing of visual information, it also activates pathways that generate emotion. In fact, these pathways are often coupled with the perception of the other’s emotions through their facial expressions.1,7 In response to direct eye gaze, individuals with clinical anxiety may have overactivation of brain regions that regulate emotional behavior, particularly fear responses.8
Eye gaze and facial recognition of emotions are promoted by oxytocin,9 a hormone known to encourage bonding and secreted during positive social interactions.10 During a Speaking Circle session, the pleasurable experience of intimacy may increase oxytocin levels and thus, activate neural pathways that associate with non-threatening social referencing and reduce the activation of fear. This may be particularly beneficial for those with social anxiety.
Speaking Circles practice helps participants to develop Eye Gaze, and may drive attunement and attachment in their professional and personal relationships outside of the session through these adaptive mechanisms.
1. Graham R, Labar KS. Neurocognitive mechanisms of gaze-expression interactions in face processing and social attention. Neuropsychologia. 2012;50(5):553-566.
2. Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MC, Waters E, Wall S. Patterns of Attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum; 1978.
3. Lohaus A, Keller H, Voelker S. Relationships between eye contact, maternal sensitivity, and infant crying. International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2001;25(6):542-548.
4. Schulze L, Renneberg B, Lobmaier JS. Gaze perception in social anxiety and social anxiety disorder. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 2013;7:872.
5. Mazur A, Cataldo M. Dominance and deference in conversation. J Social Biol Struct. 1989;12:87-99.
6. Wang Y, Hamilton AF. Why does gaze enhance mimicry? Placing gaze-mimicry effects in relation to other gaze phenomena. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology. 2014;67(4):747-762.
7. Pitskel NB, Bolling DZ, Hudac CM, et al. Brain mechanisms for processing direct and averted gaze in individuals with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders. 2011;41(12):1686-1693.
8. Schneier FR, Pomplun M, Sy M, Hirsch J. Neural response to eye contact and paroxetine treatment in generalized social anxiety disorder. Psychiatry research. 2011;194(3):271-278.
9. Guastella AJ, Mitchell PB, Dadds MR. Oxytocin increases gaze to the eye region of human faces. Biological psychiatry. 2008;63(1):3-5.
10. Gordon I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Schneiderman I, Leckman JF, Weller A, Feldman R. Oxytocin and cortisol in romantically unattached young adults: associations with bonding and psychological distress. Psychophysiology. 2008;45(3):349-352.