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Learning the Look of Love: In your Eyes, the Light the Heat


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Setting the mood for romance on date night is easy and restaurants have the right idea by dimming the lights and placing candles on each table perfectly set for two. As the soft music plays in the background, love is in the air and also in the diners’ eyes. But how do we know this ambiance really works for romance?

The eyes and love are connected. A dimly lit room casts a romantic spell by allowing for intimacy and also the darkness can cause your pupils to enlarge which is sometimes a sign of excitement, attraction and love.

As revealed in Part 1 of this series, mutual eye contact can fan the flames of love between two people. A darkened restaurant with tables lit by candlelight can supply just the right amount of illumination to allow you to focus on the face of your date and your food while the surrounding patrons, tables and the rest of the outside world seemingly fade to black. You may be less likely to gaze around the room people watching and more likely to attend to your partner providing them with eye contact and attention.

The darkened environment also allows our pupils to dilate which can be a subconscious signal of stimulation, attraction and readiness for love. Studies have shown that our pupils dilate wider than normal when we are excited about something and even someone. Oo la la! Also, men unknowingly view women with larger pupils as more attractive and we have had a hunch about this for years, even centuries.

Over 500 years ago, women in Italy used extract from the Belladonna plant to dilate their pupils because they believed it would increase their attractiveness. The word Belladonna literally means “beautiful lady.” They thought that bigger pupils would make their eyes seem more “dreamy” and entice men into falling in love with them. While you can not force or artificially manufacture attraction between two people, modern studies have confirmed that their line of thinking may have been correct.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Hess et al studied the effect of pupil size on feelings of attraction. In one experiment, they took two pictures of the same woman, presented it to male subjects and asked them to describe the female in the picture. The researchers had artistically altered the photographs, manipulating the size of the woman’s pupils to be either slightly larger or smaller than they were in their natural state. Hess noted that “none of the men reported noticing the difference in pupil size” between any of the pictures but the subtle change seemed to subconsciously influence the level of attraction they felt for the woman. When the woman had large pupils, she was said to be “soft,” “more feminine” and “pretty,” while when the very same woman had small pupils, the men described her as “cold,” “hard” and “selfish.” This frequently referenced experiment and phenomenon has been re-tested using a variety of different methods over the years and has yielded the same results; men finding women with bigger pupils to be more romantically appealing.

So why does this preference for women with large pupils exist? It may be a reproductive strategy for men to ensure their success in the biological quest of passing on their genes. By this I mean that in a recent study it has been demonstrated that women’s pupils dilate the widest while looking at a prospective partner or loved one during times of ovulation. And since we know that men find women with large pupils alluring, it seems to be the perfect formula and timing to promote successful reproduction and perpetuation of the species.

Now, let’s turn the tables. Are women attracted to men with large pupils? The answer is sometimes. Apparently for women, larger pupils being more attractive in a mate holds true if they are into the ‘bad boy’ type or are seeking a short term fling. Tombs and Silverman conducted experiments in which they took high school photos of men and women and altered them. The same person’s picture was photoshopped into three different versions with the pupils being either small, medium or large. As expected they revealed male participants in the experiment rated the pictures of the woman with large pupils to be most attractive, consistent with the earlier studies by Hess.

However, Tombs and Silverman were surprised by the results they collected from women. In their hypothesis, they had predicted women would pick only men with medium sized pupils to be most attractive, thinking that the women would similarly follow a reproductive strategy, guaranteeing the success of their soon-to-be offspring by picking a mate who is not over-sexed, like the one with large pupils was thought to be. It was thought the man with the medium sized pupils should be perceived as less promiscuous and a better caregiver to their young. Some women found men with medium pupils to be attractive while others found the males with large pupils to be most attractive. They were surprised when some women picked men with large pupils.

Instead of chalking this unexpected result off, they wanted to know why some women went against their hypothesis. They questioned another subset of women and determined that the women who unknowingly were more attracted to men with larger pupils also reported that they usually get romantically involved with bad boy types while women who preferred men with medium sized pupils sought long term relationships with ‘nice guys’ more often than not.

While all of these studies on larger pupils seemed to make sense, I still found myself a bit skeptical. I asked a friend of mine, Frank Padrone, who is a professional photographer to help me make my own demonstration for all of you.

So who do you think looks prettier, softer and more attractive?

The girl in the top photo here:

Or the girl in the bottom photo here:

The two pictures are exactly the same other than the altered pupil size. The top photo has the enlarged pupils, the bottom has normal size pupils. Which did you say was more attractive? To me, the one on the top with the larger pupils looks more amorous.

It is amazing to me that the pupils of the eyes are so involved with love, influencing our attraction for someone else, signaling when we are turned on and excited, even setting the stage for making us more alluring during ovulation?

But perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, Helen Fisher et al has been measuring MRI brain activity of participants who were said to be deeply in love. Fisher found that areas of the brain rich in dopamine receptors were activated in participants while viewing a picture of their loved one. Dopamine causes excitement, energy and motivation. Another thing dopamine causes? Pupillary Dilation. Enlarged pupils can be caused by so many things, but now perhaps we know a bit better, that one of those things could be love.

“As soon as I had seen her, I was lost. For Beauty’s wound is sharper than any weapon’s, and it runs through the eyes down to the soul. It is through the eye that love’s wound passes, and I now became a prey to a host of emotions.”

-Clitophon describing his love at first sight with Leucippe;in an ancient Greek love story by Achilles Tatius

And with that I will leave you to go make your dinner reservations.

Photo credits: Frank J. Padrone/Full Circle Photography (dinner date) (large pupils) (small pupils) (couple in love); Erica Angiolillo/Gotcha by Erica! (author)

References:

Acevedo BP, Aron A, Fisher HE, and Brown LL. Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011 Jan 5. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 21208991

Fisher HE, Aron A, Brown LL. Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 Dec 29;361(1476):2173-86. PMID: 17118931

Hess EH. The Role of Pupil Size in Communication. Sci Am 1975 Nov;233(5):110-2, 116-9. PMID: 1188340

Laeng B, Falkenberg L. Women’s pupillary responses to sexually significant others during the hormonal cycle. Horm Behav. 2007 Nov;52(4):520-30. Epub 2007 Aug 10.
PMID: 17870074

Spiers A, Calne, D. Action of Dopamine on the Human Iris. Br Med J. 1969 November 8; 4(5679): 333–335. PMCID: PMC1629580

Tombs S, Silverman I. Pupillometry A sexual selection approach. Evolution and Human Behavior. 2004 Apr; 25 (4):221-228 doi 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.05.001

Special thanks to Frank J. Padrone for setting up the demonstration and for providing images.

Cheryl Murphy About the Author: Cheryl G. Murphy is an optometrist and freelance science writer living and working in New York State. She began writing about vision science on her blog,Science Hidden in Plain Sight, in 2008. Links to her previous contributions to Scientific American’s guest blog can be found here. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Follow on Twitter @murphyod.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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