Vitamin Eye

Social nutrients worth a second look

Eye Candy

Good looks -- good for you.

Eye candy is, by definition, good-looking people: Sweet to stare at, they tempt us with their addictive visuals. But the term has another meaning, especially when we remember that our brain's primary fuel is sugar. Eye candy is also a special kind of mutual gaze -- one that is dense with energy, sends our pleasure chemicals surging, and looks absolutely delicious. And it's good for you.

As a psychologist specializing in eye contact, and instructor in the psychology of vision, I've heard of hundreds of variations of eye candy. Mythic, even archetypal, these soft looks, gentle leers, and come-hither stares are the stuff of legend. Mesmerizing, they can make the hearts of even the sturdiest among us beat faster. Eye candy can stop us in our tracks. Being allowed to feast for an instant upon someone's beautiful eyes, an instant of mutual acknowledgment, can make us feel downright inebriated. No surprise: Love drugs are directly connected to our eyes.

Described as hyper-social apes, humans like to be around other people (at least occasionally), and are able to take great physical and psychological enjoyment from our eye connections with the people we see. In fact, our brains are made for visual pleasure, reinforcing positive social eye connection, and promoting inter-ocular experiences of good will for mutual benefit.

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Evolution has favored the development of brain connections between our looks and our reward centers. Eye-to-eye contact is well-known to trigger autonomic nervous system response: The HPA pathway (Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal) is directly stimulated by the eyes that come into our sightlines before we're fully aware of who we're seeing.

Even a slightly prolonged mutual gaze can make our sympathetic nervous systems go wild: pupils dilate, we flush, feel a rush, sweaty palms, the whole bit. Fight or flight? Tend and befriend? Our hypothalamus rushes to find the appropriate social response. In the presence of oxytocin, we may choose the latter.

Oxytocin, a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, is known to be associated with positive gaze experiences. Nursing mothers, new lovers and puppy owners share spiking "cuddle drug" levels. These tender mutual eye interludes are both inspired by oxytocin, and catalyze its synthesis in our brains. A true ‘virtuous cycle,' experiences of eye candy lead to oxytocin production and feelings of well-being, which stimulates us to look good at others - to do eye candy.

Research evidence abounds: ours are very pro-social brains that reward us for using our eyes with others - even strangers - in connecting and caring ways. When we don't get enough eye candy, the pleasure centers of our brains are not as active, and we don't feel as good.

Eye candy deficiencies can feel very unpleasant. Just ask anyone past their 15 minutes of fame what it's like to go unnoticed, to be ignored, after their instant in the spotlight. Empty. Hungry. Symptoms of attention deficits are painful and may linger, including emotions of despondence, fear, paranoia, rage. Profound sadness. Feelings of invisibility and unreality. Existential confusion.

Desire for eye candy can be insatiable. Some individuals go to extraordinary lengths to cultivate it, expending considerable time, money and energy to draw the visual approval of people around them. Fortunately, a supply of good quality eye candy may be found in the looks of pets and small children. The gazes of these beings are specifically not intimidating or judgmental. The pleasure is that they look back with eyes of innocent interest at anyone.

Just watching the eyes of happy people, even if they're not looking at us, may be a form of eye candy. We're drawn to the looks of cheerful individuals -- reinforced by positive visuals. Just as there is something depleting about being witness to angry and suspicious looks, there's something heartening about observing joyful and receptive visual interactions. Indirect eye contact comprise important aspects of our social environment, subtly shaping our morale and feelings of trust.

For many people, however, quality sources of eye candy are scarce. That's why visual pleasures sell. In our media-heavy, and too-often solitary, lives we instinctively take refuge in the eyes of beautiful people on posters, billboards, and magazine covers whose eyes reach out to ours. And in the variety of electronic images that flicker across our screens that offer eye contact by proxy. An essential element in these media-made eye contacts is how the people in the images look back: they never reject, never say stop looking, never ask what we're looking at. No embarrassment, paranoia or pain. We can look again and again.

That our eyes are drawn to the eyes of people who can't see us is proof of their power to fascinate us. Such sources of pseudo connection still feel good because they offer us an element of social sensation. But like many drugs, the stripped down ‘pure' version may lack the therapeutic nuances of the natural source. Vicarious forms of eye candy lack immediacy and connection -- vital social nutrients that we need to feel good.

So activate your health: Savor your positive visuals.
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Shelagh Robinson, Ph.D. is an instructor in psychology at Dawson College and McGill University. She is a member of l'Ordre des psychologues du Québec, and is the Director of Eyerise, Montreal.

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