In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Look of Love

I can see the love in your eyes.

"The look of love
Is in your eyes
The look your smile can't disguise
The look of love
Is saying so much more than just words could ever say
And what my heart has heard,
Well it takes my breath away." Dusty Springfield

What is the look of love? How can simple facial expressions express one of the most complex human emotions? People are often not even sure about the presence of emotion when they are asked about it. And Dusty Springfield's song even suggests that the look of love is clearer to lovers than words could ever articulate. What is the secret of this meaningful look?

The eyes have been regarded as the mirror of our mental states. St. Augustine famously called the eyes "the windows to the soul"; Descartes argued that there is no passion that some particular expression of the eyes does not reveal. Consistent with this belief are findings indicating that adults with large eyes are perceived to be more honest. (This can lead to a favorable bias toward people who have baby faces or attractive faces—both of which are characterized by large eyes.) The eyes are also important components of our physical appearance, to the extent that if we wish to conceal our identity in a picture, we often do so merely by blocking out the eyes. The emotional significance of gazing is also expressed in the belief that an "evil eye" can hurt us and in the custom of wearing the veil. For similar reasons, many dealers wear dark glasses to conceal their responses.

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The meaningful nature of the our human vision is expressed by the following point made by the Spanish thinker Salvador de Madariaga, who asked: "If our eyes had X-ray vision, would the information about reality they presented to us be more objective, more accurate, more complete, more penetrating?" He then answered: "Yes and no. A beautiful young woman would look like a walking skeleton to us. We would receive some information that our eyes hide from us—information about her bones-but we would never know what her face, her legs, her hands, her breasts, or the color of her eyes are like. If our eyes had X-ray vision, we would describe a tree as a vertical liquid stream that springs from the ground and which, if approached, causes one to receive an awful bump on the head." X-ray vision, which lacks emotional significance, presents a dull world that lacks the capacity to motivate us to act and understand our environment. Unlike the gray, flat surfaces presented by X-ray vision, emotional vision provides an exciting, colorful view of mountains and valleys. It is not merely that it is more interesting to walk amid such scenery; in addition, the emotional aspect often facilitates our understanding of the environment.

The ability of the eyes to express our soul was the subject of a study on the focus of men's and women's initial gaze upon first meeting. Women tend to look at men's eyes, whereas men initially look at women's bodies. While the body is of central importance for sexual attraction, the eyes are perceived as the best indicators of one's character.

Another sign of the highly meaningful nature of the eyes can be seen when we feel shame. The instinct to cover our eyes, hide, or even run away, which are all behaviors that are typical of shame, explains why shame is often connected with sight and being seen. In the Biblical story of the Creation, we are told that before Eve gave the apple to Adam, there was no shame. Shame emerged only after they ate the apple and "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they felt that they were naked." When God called to them, they hid from him in shame. Indeed, hiding and attempting to disappear-or at least wishing to do so-is a prevalent common response to feelings of shame (as well as those of embarrassment).

Gaze aversion is typical also of situations in which we shun unwanted intimacy, as when people move closer to us than we wish them to be, or when the topic of conversation takes too intimate a turn. A sustained meeting of eyes between the sexes may be perceived as being excessively intimate or intrusive. It is as if we do not want our soul to be seen through our eyes. Animals often respond aggressively or take fright when they are stared at; consequently, some animals gaze at enemies to threaten them or assert their dominance. One possible function of breaking off eye contact is to prevent our present mental state from being discovered-or at least make it more difficult to identify.

In situations that do not provoke shame and embarrassment, or when we want to reveal our basic attitudes and values, maintaining eye contact is the typical behavior. Indeed, couples who love each other a great deal spend more time making intimate eye contact than couples who love each other to a lesser degree. (For some reason, women spend more time looking at men than vice versa.) It is not merely that love is expressed in spending more time looking at each other, but such meaningful gazing might also lead to or intensify love. Susan Anthony claims that in life, actions speak louder than words, but in love, the eyes do. Hence, the eyes, rather than the genitals or the heart, are perhaps the prime organ of love and are one of the most significant means through which we communicate our emotions. No wonder that the eyes are the organs that release tears, which are typically produced by intense emotional states.

The look of love is consequently not simply a matter of being captivated by the beautiful features of someone's face, but being vividly aware of the other's profound loving attitudes toward us. It is the revelation, again and again, of the other's caring and yearning for us. Here is a description by a woman in love of the looks of love of her spouse: "His hungry eyes scan me, making me tremble and yearn for him; his misty eyes are like the early morning dew when he is overwhelmed with love for me; or when he finds me particularly moving or beautiful, his gentle compassionate look turns his eyes hazel, and his soft eyes express care and concern so often".

When I was quite young, I thought how wonderful it would be if there was a machine that could inform me of the genuine attitudes of the girl that I was dating. When I grew older, I realized that no such machine was necessary—"the look of love" became easy to identify.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I look again and again at your beautiful face, but I cannot find that loving look. But I'm not too worried about this, as I know how oblivious to me you have become lately."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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