Kay: The Eyes Have It

Image: "Beauty tips for eyes," posted on Marie Claire, August 16, 2014

Image: “Beauty tips for eyes,” posted on Marie Claire, August 16, 2014

The writers of this blog met in the McDaniel College creative writing (romance) program. Not all of us are primarily romance writers. For some of us, a romance plot might be a secondary element, or even just a hint on the horizon.

Whatever space the romantic plot occupies in our books, we all want to make the love story believable. For me, the key question when I write my hero and heroine is, why these two people and no other? What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

It turns out that two University of Chicago neuroscientists know how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo decided to study whether people look at potential mates differently if they perceive a long-term companion rather than a temporary sexual partner. The scientists speculated that their findings could benefit therapists who do couples counseling.

They showed their research subjects (heterosexual college students) black-and-white photos of members of the opposite sex. Tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements, and the researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust.

The results, published in Psychological Science, probably won’t shock you, or even surprise you. The researchers found that you look at people differently if you’re thinking long-term or short-term. People interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but because women have better peripheral vision, the scientists speculated that they may seem less obvious about it.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, whereas sexual desire lights up its posterior. “Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses,” the researchers write, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in relatively abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And romance writing is nothing if not interpersonal interaction. How characters should look at each other is good to keep in mind when your heroine is telling her deepest secrets. That’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re going dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

What about you? Are there obvious (or not so obvious) behaviors that help you show your characters’ deepest (or most shallow) feelings?



8 thoughts on “Kay: The Eyes Have It

  1. This is really cool! If I’m reading this right, the love is part of the “new brain” and the lust is part of the “old brain.” (-: Makes perfect sense!

    I agree that look is a really important part of showing love/lust. One of my favorites is that “look to see if s/he’s looking” look (-:. Touch is another important thing. It seems that people try to touch a lot more when they like someone. Or just get closer, arrange things into another person’s personal space — which can be lovey, or can be creepy.

    • And if I’m reading you right, then the new part of the brain is the evolutionary part that enabled love and long-term relationships? Interesting! And the two sides of touching—welcome or creepy—demonstrate that most of the senses are two sides of the same coin. How often do we use the sense of smell to suggest something welcome and enveloping, or overwhelming?

      • True! Creepy guy has too much cologne (or stinks). Lovey guy has a fresh, citrusy smell (or a manly scent). Smell is important. And the perception of that person also plays into that, I’m sure.

        I have to think a little more about the new brain/old brain differences. Some animals mate for life — but evolutionary speaking, have they been doing that for millions of years? And how can we tell? But, we don’t see too many life-mated lizards (I don’t think! I could be wrong) but I’m sure there’s examples of lizard lust on YouTube . . . .

  2. This is fabulous, Kay, thank you SO much. It totally makes sense – the eyes and face are where we’d look to get clues about what a person’s like on the inside (though according to Joe Navarro we should learn to double-check what a person’s saying with their body, because we can learn to lie with the eyes and face, what Michaeline described as the ‘new brain’). If all we have in mind is something short-term and physical, we don’t need to know what a person’s like deep down.

    As well as the eyes, a smile does it for me. It’s easy to see, harder to describe, but there’s a big difference between a smile that says ‘I think you’re hot’ and a private, intimate one that’s all about shared understanding.

  3. Pingback: Jilly: Here’s Looking At You | Eight Ladies Writing

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