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Why Your Presence Alone Is Surprisingly Powerful

How sitting with a stranger can reduce pain and anxiety.

Key points

  • Studies find that eye gazing can produce synchronous blinking, brain activity, and a feeling of being “merged” together.
  • Simply making eye contact reduces perceived social distance and improves cooperation.
  • Having a stranger present during a painful task reduces the pain experienced compared to doing it alone.
Shelby Lessig/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Shelby Lessig/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

In her 2010 performance artwork The Artist is Present, Marina Abramović spent a grueling eight to 10 hours a day in silence, looking into the eyes of strangers. Many who participated were moved to tears. But why did people line up for hours to sit in a chair and stare at an artist?

Some hints come from studies into eye gazing. One study found that people who gazed into each other’s eyes had more synchronous blinking and brain activity afterward, almost like they had become more deeply interconnected or, as a different study put it, “merged” with each other. Some research even suggests that eye gazing can help to build attraction and love.

Those studies examined longer eye gazing, but even just eye contact can have some important impacts. After making eye contact with a stranger, we rate them as more similar to us. And cooperation can be improved by allowing game participants to look into each others’ eyes.

These sorts of findings resonate with an experience many of us have had—that being present with a person can quickly build a sense of familiarity, rapport, and empathy.

Taken together, the impacts of being present with someone, especially seeing their eyes, appear to meaningfully relate to improved understanding, which can help address conflicts.

When you’re having a synchronous conversation where you know you’re being seen, locking eyes with someone activates your autonomic nervous system, even when just chatting on Zoom. But experts still agree that connecting with people is much more effective in person. The power of your presence is largely lacking when you communicate over social media or text.

In a text-based conversation, vocal tone, body language, smells, eye contact, and more are absent. So in terms of understanding and synchronizing with each other, talking on a platform like Twitter is starting off at a huge disadvantage (even before considering problems with how particular sites are designed).

Other Impacts of Being Present

Acknowledgment—seeing and being seen—is an ancient and deeply powerful experience. Having a complete stranger just sit with you while you perform a painful task reduces the pain you experience compared to doing it alone. And if a calm adult is present, research finds that children show reduced cortisol levels.

Educator and author Parker Palmer said compassion is “an act of witness and being fully present to another person—and helping that person understand that someone sees them, hears them, and knows who they are...”

Experts in helping people leave gangs and extremist groups explain that former members all have one thing in common: someone showed them this sort of compassion. Feeling seen helped them begin to believe in themselves and their abilities to live meaningful lives without hatred and extremism.

If we take all of this evidence together, there is good reason to think that by your mere positive presence and without giving any advice, you can sometimes help to regulate another person’s physiology, reduce stress and anxiety, and make a positive impact on their life. This is just one of many ways you’re not as isolated as you might think. Many other sources of evidence suggest you have the power to help spread positive states, ideas, and even behaviours.

Compassion doesn’t have to be only something we do for others. Psychologist Kristen Neff said that when we make mistakes, a typical response—harsh self-criticism—can lead to a false sense of isolation, making the pain worse.

She recommends a technique called “self-compassion” instead. It’s a way of connecting with the pain in you, recognizing it before going into problem-solving mode, and knowing that it is actually a common human experience, not something that isolates you from others.

For those worried that self-compassion would only encourage weakness, laziness, or letting yourself off the hook for mistakes, that doesn’t seem to happen, according to a growing body of research. Self-compassion has been tested in high-stress situations and found to actually improve performance in, for example, college athletes. It seems that, just like other people, we can benefit in multiple ways from our own compassionate presence.

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