By Wes Beavis
Christian faith and science are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, secularized culture is convincing younger generations they must decide between the two. I constantly tell young people not to believe the secular voices that declare you must choose either science or faith . . . or worse, that if you are a Christian, you are by default a nonscientific Neanderthal.
As both a follower of Christ and a clinical psychologist, I have developed a passion for discovering places where Christian faith and scientific discovery intersect—and there are countless intersections! For example, when the rich young ruler approached Jesus about how to obtain eternal life, it is recorded that, “Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!” (Mark 10:21, The Message). From a cursory view Jesus did two things, (1) looked in his eyes, and (2) loved him. These are fairly simple human interactions. But there is scientific significance to the way Jesus interacted with the rich young ruler.
Oxytocin and Empathy
Jesus was purposeful in his interactions. Why did he look intently into the eyes of the rich young ruler? He was not curious about his eye color. Jesus was not checking for cataracts so that he might heal the man. Columbia University neuroscientist and teacher Dr. Bianca Jones Marlin says eye contact stimulates empathy by releasing oxytocin in the brain. This release of oxytocin—which some call the “bonding” chemical—strengthens relational connection. So, by looking intently into the eyes of the rich young ruler, Jesus was strengthening a connection. God places oxytocin in our bodies as a stimulant that promotes empathy and bonding.
Referring specifically to the power of eye contact, Yale University researcher Dr. John Dovidio said, “When you experience empathy, it motivates you to help the other person, even at personal cost to you.” This is one reason some people may avoid eye contact. When they do not want to foster engagement, they resist eye contact because they don’t want to stimulate bonding or empathy. Parents of children who experience the neurobiological challenges of autism may find it difficult to nurture the child if he or she struggles with the simple task of making eye contact. Looking intently into someone’s eyes is an effective way to reduce emotional distance. Without it, bonding is harder.
There may be times people want to maintain emotional distance and, therefore, they avoid eye contact. For example, have you ever been fired or told by someone they no longer wanted to be in relationship with you? Rarely will they look you in the eye when telling you. Many breakups happen via text. Most firings happen via email. When I was fired for invoking God’s name during a speech in a secular setting, I was informed via email. I think it was because the person who hired me for the event was a friend and couldn’t bear to tell me face-to-face that I was fired. I don’t blame him. That would have been an awkward interaction for both of us!
The ‘Invisible Bridge’
In the right context, when you look intently into another person’s eyes, you are setting up an invisible bridge over which you can transport interest, value, and affection for them. I qualify the previous sentence with the words, “in the right context,” because people can also stare into the eyes of another person while screaming at them. But people erroneously do this in an attempt to make connection. This is another example of sin distorting something beautiful that God has given us. God designed eye contact to help two people establish deep connection. Like so many other elements of God’s design—sexual intimacy, for example—eye contact can be hijacked for selfish and destructive purposes.
Have you ever been with a person or group when someone said, “He’s heading this way, don’t make eye contact”? This is another example of the power of eye contact. When people deliberately ignore you or do not want to engage with you, they will try to avoid eye contact.
If you have ever been pulled over for a traffic violation, it is very unlikely the law enforcement officer looked into your eyes. Personal (and humbling) experience has taught me that officers are not interested in building a relational bond with you. In fact, officers who have issued me with an occasional citation (typically for rolling through a stop sign) have kept their sunglasses on. This has made it difficult to make eye contact in the vain hope I could stimulate empathy and be let off with a warning!
Stanford University researcher Dr. Jamil Zaki describes empathy as the “psychological ‘superglue’ that connects people and undergirds co-operation and kindness.” It’s hard to get the juices of kindness flowing from anyone who does not make eye contact.
It has been said that people look into the eyes of another for one of two reasons, to either help them or hurt them. With the rich young ruler, Jesus used eye contact for its divinely intended purpose—to help him. Science has revealed how eye contact opens the way for empathy and expressing love.
“Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!”