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…