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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/July 1898/Eye Language


NO part of the human countenance engages our attention so frequently as the eyes. When face to face in conversation, we do not look at the lips—although, as a rule, the attention is very quickly taken by any movement—but at the eyes of the person with whom we are speaking. So much is this the case that the habit of many deaf people of watching the mouth always strikes us as peculiar. In fact, one usually feels that there is a sense of incompleteness in the association of mind with mind by means of conversation if there is not a continual interchange of glances making a kind of running commentary on the words spoken. The same may be said of ordinary greetings when two people shake hands: unless there is at the same moment a meeting of friendly looks the ceremony loses much of its meaning.

Now why is there this continual meeting of eyes accompanying all kinds of human intercourse? Partly, no doubt, it is attributable to certain habits of comparatively recent date. The eye, "the window of the soul," is a more truthful exponent of the inward thoughts than the tongue, and seeing that speech is very frequently used not to tell the thoughts but to conceal them, we look to the eye for confirmation or the reverse for what our ears are taking in.

Partly, I think, the habit is based upon an inbred instinct which we have inherited from very remote ancestors, and which is exhibited by many of the lower animals. One finds that very young children, long before they acquire any knowledge of words, establish an understanding with those about them by means of the eye. A babe of a few months old directs its glances to the eyes of those round about it quite as much as an older person. A dog watches its master's eyes habitually, and, as will be shown later, monkeys use this method of ascertaining what is in the minds of those round about them almost as much as we do. Many wild creatures instinctively understand when they are being looked at. Thus a hare in her seat will often allow a man to pass close by her if his gaze is directed at some other object, but when she sees his eyes turned toward her she seems to know that she is discovered, and is up and away in an instant.

Is it not Oliver Wendell Holmes who draws attention to the automatic way in which we challenge the eyes of those we pass in the street, and thus establish, every time we walk abroad, a species of understanding with many persons who are otherwise complete strangers? It is not too much to say that mind begins to communicate with mind at the moment when the eyes encounter, and that people whom we have acknowledged in this way stand on a somewhat more familiar footing with us than before the vague bond became established.

We, most of us, feel a hesitation about making our presence known, even to a friend, by any other form of advance. The beggar has long ago discovered that he gains by this most informal method of self-introduction. This fact has been brought home to me of late while I have been interested in ocular expression, and have made a habit of looking—perhaps rather more intently than is customary—at the eyes of persons whom I meet upon the pavement. If any member of the cadger fraternity happens to be on business in the streets, he is certain to regard the momentary interchange of glances as an invitation to attempt some more profitable form of commerce. The commonness of the habit can not be better emphasized than by calling attention to the fact that members of Parliament make use of the same mute telegraphy as mendicants when they desire permission to address the House.

Fencing masters lay great stress upon the importance of pupils keeping their eyes steadily upon those of their opponents. In all probability Nature herself would teach any of us this elementary lesson if we were face to face with a real enemy. I have noticed that all pugilists, trained and untrained, when sparring keep their gaze fixed upon the eyes of their antagonists. That such habits are instinctive is shown by the fact that all apes when they have hostile intentions invariably look steadily at the eyes, and never allow their glance to stray.

When we study the natural history of ocular expression we soon find an explanation of these facts. Obviously the nervous mechanism of such primitive and widely distributed methods of intercourse must be very ancient, and can have but little to do with the higher intellectual faculties. Undoubtedly eye language dates back far beyond the beginning of human speech, and was therefore established at a time when mental processes were infinitely less complex than they are to-day. One must not attribute the superior truthfulness of the eye over the tongue and the other organs of expression to any causes which have to do with morality. Nature knows nothing of ethics as we understand the term, and if she can gain an infinitesimal advantage by deceit she resorts to it without the slightest hesitation. But, unlike many human exponents of the art of lying, she is frugal and businesslike in her output of falsehoods. If it does not pay her to tell a lie her veracity is beyond suspicion. Broadly speaking, the language of the eye is the language of truth, because it was evolved at a time when elaborate lies were useless. When there were no highly developed brains social strategy of the more oblique kind was uncalled for, just as hundred-ton guns were uncalled for before the days of ironclads. We know that the development of the critical and plotting part of the brain is of comparatively recent date, but that the mechanism of the emotions and the more automatic mental processes is extremely ancient. Hence the surviving methods of communication which belonged to the earlier ages, and are closely connected with the machinery of emotion, do not so readily lend themselves to civilized mental artifices as the comparatively new-fangled organs of speech. They are to a great extent independent of the conscious will. I shall endeavor to explain, when discussing the physiology of ocular expression, how it is that the eyes maintain their pristine simplicity and often betray the lying tongue.

In his treatise on the Anatomy of Expression, Sir Charles Bell draws attention to the fact that the changes which take place in the appearance of the eye are due chiefly to the surrounding structures, and not to alterations in the eyeball itself. When, therefore, one is discussing the causes of ocular expression, it is necessary to take account of the muscles of the brow and also of those which surround the orbit. I think, however, that the eyeball per se undergoes more change under the influence of emotion than has been supposed. It has been said that the glistening or sparkling of the eye is simply the result of the ball being compressed from the outside; but careful experiments seem to show that the orbicular and other muscles surrounding the eyeball have less constricting power than they have received credit for. One finds, both in man and in animals, that the eye is capable of sustaining a good deal of pressure from the front without any marked change in its general aspect. Any one who has observed the large cushion of fat which lines the roomy orbit, and which forms a soft bed for the ball, will understand how easily the eye evades pressure from the orbicular muscle. Of course, if all the little muscular straps which proceed from the back of the orbit, and are attached to the sclerotic, were to contract vigorously at the same time, ocular tension might be sufficiently increased to cause the front surface to be tight and glistening. But it will be plain to every anatomist that if this took place the eye would be completely disorganized as a visual apparatus, because the distance between the lens and retina would be so increased as to throw the focusing machinery completely out of gear. The effect of pressure so applied would be to make the eye extremely short-sighted. Now, it is quite possible to have the eye sparkling with emotion and yet retain the normal powers of sight. We must look elsewhere for the mechanism of the sparkling eye, and I think we shall find it in the parts controlled by the sympathetic nerves which regulate the condition of the blood-vessels and their minute continuations. This will perhaps be best discussed a little later, when some points in the physiology of the eyeball which bear upon expression are dealt with.

The relation of the brow to the eye greatly influences its expression. If one examines the eye of an eagle one finds that its impressive aspect greatly depends upon the fact that it is overhung by a lowered brow. Although we speak of an "eagle eye" in a human being, there can be no doubt that it is the unconscious application of human physiognomical standards to the bird which makes us think its expression so imposing. The eagle has in an exaggerated form certain ocular characteristics which in a human being are a sure sign of formidable qualities. A clear and steady gaze—possibly emphasized by the sparkle indicating some fierce emotion—from beneath a lowered frowning brow means a great deal when seen in a man. Throughout all Nature a steady eye indicates courage. The possessor is confident in his own strength, and does not feel the need of looking hither and thither either for succor or for a way of escape. This fearlessness and fearless aspect under natural circumstances is generally fully justified. It is only when it is backed up by such physical qualities as to give a fair prospect of success in any encounter that warlike courage is one of Nature's conservative forces. Otherwise it would obviously expose its possessor to grave risks of extinction. It is because this sign of courage seen in the countenance is also almost invariably a sign of formidable power that it is so universally held in respect. In the "eagle eye" one has this bold clear glance, and above it the suggestion of a frown. Now a brow of this character usually means two things: First, that there is some feeling of resentment; and second, that the mind of the frowner is made up as to some course of action. When these are added on to the other qualities indicated by the "eagle eye," one naturally feels that the man displaying it is not one to be trifled with. Most savages frown horribly when they wish to intimidate their foes, and it is said the Chinese recruits are exercised in this maneuver as thoroughly as ours are in accomplishing the "goose step." Their words of command (as commonly reported) are, "Prepare to look fierce! Look fierce! Advance on the enemy!"

I am inclined to think that we have a remnant of this self-same piece of strategy in the peaked caps still worn by the soldiers of several nations. The cap which one sees most commonly represented in pictures of the French troops in the Franco-German War brings a frowning look to the brow, and shadows the eyes in such a way as to give the face a very stern and soldierly ensemble.

I remember being greatly struck with the transformation effected in the look of a number of "sandwich men" in the Strand who had been dressed up in cast-off French uniforms. The men seemed all of the feeble, woe-begone class from which sandwich men are usually recruited, but under the shadow of the military caps their faces looked stern and resolute, and their eyes had quite lost that watery, vacillating look which is engendered by alcohol and despair.

Sculptors and painters almost always exaggerate the brow and the shadow it casts when representing idealized human figures. It is an essential of the manly type of beauty to possess this certificate of manly qualities. We all know how weak and unimpressive is the prominent eye which is not shadowed by a lowered lid or brow. The reason of this is that people with such eyes have a startled look similar to that of a frightened animal. It is one of the painful duties of a physician to watch the facial changes which take place in various diseases, and in one known as exophthalmic goitre the eyes tend to become more and more prominent. The result is that the face has an aspect which so exactly simulates the expression of sudden fear that it is often difficult to believe that the patient is not feeling great alarm.

We are constantly influenced by the automatic tendency to form judgments about the character from ocular expression when we come in contact with those whose eyes are altered in appearance by accident or disease. Thus when a person is suffering from the involuntary to-and-fro shifting of the eyes known as nystagmus, it is by no means easy to believe in his sincerity. Probably all of us feel an instinctive prejudice against individuals who squint. The fact that the two eyes are looking in different directions creates an involuntary suspicion of double dealing. This is especially the case when the squint is an external one. Here obviously the fault is in the understanding of the spectator, and not in the moral character of the unfortunate who squints. It is the unreasoning "old man" who is within every one of us who insists on disbelieving in the virtues of a squinting vis-à-vis. Doubtless in those days of pristine simplicity when the ancestral "old man" was in his prime, and as yet incapable of articulate speech, the necessity of understanding ocular language was so great that any being whose eyes were a complete puzzle was justly regarded with distrust. Nearly all monkeys become angry and suspicious when looked at by a person who squints. When we reason the matter out we recognize that this distrustful feeling toward strangers who have crooked eyes is perfectly absurd, and that obliquity of vision can be no possible index of perverted morals. We all feel the prejudice, nevertheless!

Probably the world-wide superstition concerning "the evil eye" has arisen from the sinister aspect of a squint. Bret Harte, in The Right Eye of the Commander, tells how a whole settlement was well-nigh ruined through its benevolent chief purchasing a staring glass eye from an astute Yankee trader. According to the narrative, this so altered the expression of the commander that even his intimates began to fear him, and it soon became rumored among the Indians that he was possessed with a devil. Possibly the uncanny effect produced by an ill-fitting glass eye is enhanced by its stony stare, resembling that of the abhorred serpent.

Emotion is largely shown in the eye—as elsewhere—through the medium of the sympathetic nerves. These are almost always outside the direct control of the will. One of their chief functions is to regulate the caliber of the blood vessels. Many people are painfully conscious that they are quite unable to keep themselves from blushing. When we blush, the sympathetic ganglia in the neck which control the facial circulation allow the small arteries to dilate, and hence the surface of the skin becomes suffused with red. Now the front surface of the eyes, although apparently non-vascular, is really filled with a network of microscopic canals containing a clear fluid. These are so minute that even the tiny red corpuscles of the blood can not enter them except under exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, they, like the other channels of the circulation, are controlled by the sympathetic nerves, and when these give the command they become distended with lymph so as to lend to the cornea and conjunctiva a tense glistening aspect. We all know that the eyes become bright under the influence of fever, and this is obviously because the tiny lymph channels, like the larger vessels which convey the blood to the skin, are dilated and full of fluid. This, I think, is a satisfactory proof that the glistening of the eye does not wholly depend upon the muscular pressure from without. Not only do the sympathetic nerves regulate the brightness of the eyes in the manner above mentioned, but they are also the agents in bringing about changes of expression due to the enlargement or contraction of the pupil. Perhaps it may be as well to remind those of my readers who have not studied the anatomy of the eye that the pupil is a little window admitting the light to the ocular chamber, and that its diameter is regulated by the involuntary muscular fibers of the iris. Until comparatively lately there seems to have been a good deal of difference of opinion as to the action of the pupil under the influence of emotion. About five years ago I had some correspondence with Sir S. Wilkes, the distinguished president of the Royal College of Physicians, upon this very subject, and he informed me that after long inquiry he had been unable to get any trustworthy information as to how the pupil behaved in the lower animals when they were under the influence of emotion. The correspondence had been called forth by my stating in an article on Canine Morals and Manners (lately republished in Wild Traits in Tame Animals) that a dog's pupils dilate when he is angry. The evidence upon which I based this statement was gathered at the house of a friend who had a fox terrier which used to become furious when teased. It had a basket in the corner of the room to which it retired when offended. The light from the chandelier shone full upon its face, and I frequently observed that when the animal was especially angry the eye chambers reflected the light in the same way as do those of a human being when the pupils are dilated with atropine. Having no quarrel with the animal myself, I could approach him with safety when others were exciting his wrath, and found that on such occasions the pupils of his eyes were widely open. It so happened that about the same time Sir S. Wilkes had been making observations upon parrots, and found that the pupil contracted when the birds were under the influence of anger. On extending my observations to other animals, I found that cats and monkeys exhibited the same peculiarity as the dog when enraged and meditating mischief, but that in several instances, as soon as the creatures were provoked beyond endurance and flew at their persecutors, the pupils suddenly contracted. I offer the following conjecture as to the reason of this phenomenon: When an animal is angry and face to face with a foe, but has not made up its mind as to the most effective method of attack, it is important that the eyes should take in as much as possible of the enemy and his surroundings; but when the actual onslaught is made, the attention of the assailant is fully concentrated upon some particular point of his adversary's body.

One of the most remarkable instances of dilatation of the pupil during anger which I have observed was in a black panther at the Zoölogical Gardens. This dangerous brute, which had injured several people and was usually kept in the background away from the general public, sprang at the bars when the keeper touched him with a stick, and his yellow circular irises became narrowed to mere bands, so that the pupils were enormously dilated. This gave the eyes an expression of indescribable ferocity, for they reflected so much light from their interior as to appear as if red flames were glowing within.

There seems to be a good deal of doubt as to the reason why the eyes of animals shine in the dark. One often hears it stated that the eyes of certain beasts emit light on their own account as if they were phosphorescent. I have never been able to verify this statement, and am inclined to think that it is a mistake. In all cases where I have personally observed this shining of the eyes, the light has obviously been reflected. Our attention is usually drawn to the phenomenon when a creature is in a dark corner and we are between it and the light, or when we are carrying a lamp or candle at night-time. When it is dark the pupils of all animals naturally dilate almost to their full extent, and therefore the sudden appearance of an artificial light finds the eyes in much the same condition as they would be in if under the influence of atropine. Any one who has taken a bright lantern into a cow stall or stable at night must have been struck by the glinting eyes of the animals turned toward him. Pot hunters, in the days when deer were plentiful in America, used to go out at night with an assistant carrying some blazing pine knots just behind them. The eyes of the startled deer with their pupils dilated with terror and darkness at once afforded a deadly mark to the "sportsman." The method was not without its dangers, especially in the settled regions, and innumerable tales are told of domestic animals having been shot by some careless "fire hunter."

I have never been able to make out why the light coming from the eyes of most animals seems to be almost as pale as that from the glowworm. Wehn we examine the human eye with an ophthalmoscope the light reflected from the retina is red, because that membrane is filled with a network of innumerable blood vessels. The eyes of the enraged panther mentioned above threw back a distinctly red light, but usually, especially when one is at some little distance, eyes shining in the dark look of a pale-green color.

Other emotions besides that of anger seem to cause an enlargement of the pupils, but it is by no means easy to explain why this should be the case. Like most of the functions which are under the control of the sympathetic system, exercise increases the tendency. Hence, wherever one sees a person whose pupils dilate or contract very readily, one may at once infer that one is dealing with an emotional and excitable nature.

I shall not attempt on this occasion to point out all the peculiarities observable in the human eyes which aid us in reading character, and, moreover, it would be exceedingly difficult to analyze verbally some of the intuitive judgments we form from such sources every day of our lives. As was remarked above, such judgments are frequently based upon mere instincts, and seem to spring from those lower mental centers which-we possess in common with the lower animals. One generalization which was made several years ago by my friend Mr. J. A. Fothergill is, however, worthy of mention. When the eyes are somewhat prominent and are half veiled by drooping lids (a type well marked in the late Lord Beaconsfield), it is almost invariably a sign of superior mental qualities.—Blackwood's Magazine.