Eye Contact

THE LIBERATORS PROMOTE HUMAN CONNECTION ONE STARING CONTEST AT A TIME. 

By Maggie McNulty

Eyes are the window to the soul. The apple of an eye. A brown-eyed girl.

They are an inescapable motif of love songs, poems, and cupid-covered Valentines. Eyes, and eye contact specifically, are an integral part of human connection. Few people understand the importance of this connection better than Australian life coach Deborah Knight. Knight has built her career upon the education, practice, and promotion of eye contact.

Knight is part of a global movement dedicated to enforcing the importance of eye contact in people’s daily lives. As part of the movement, she helped organize the “World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experience” on the Boston Common on September 23 as part of a global organization called “The Liberators.” The Liberators are a peaceful, international social movement founded in Australia that organizes public, participatory events such as the one on the Common. This is the second year the event was held in this location—last year the event amassed a handful of participants. This year, over 385 people attended, according to Knight.

The event served to answer the question that the Liberators pose: where has the human connection gone? According to Knight, technological developments such as smartphones and laptops inhibit the ways in which humans connect by restricting eye contact. During the World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment, two strangers are paired together and tasked to unwaveringly look into each other’s eyes for a minute. This activity is meant to “recharge” and foster a connection between strangers with no more communication than eye contact.

On that sunny September Saturday, a group of strangers and I milled awkwardly through the Common holding yoga mats, beach towels, and worn couch cushions. We gathered there with the sole purpose of looking into the eyes of a stranger.  

Knight commenced the event by encouraging participants to “avoid any communication beyond eye contact.” There were a few clunky giggles and accidental “hellos,” but after the initial awkwardness dissipated, an eery and unknown quiet settled over the patch of grass next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. People old and young, ranging from approximately 5 to 85, peacefully participated in what is essentially an uncompetitive staring contest.

  Illustration by Morgan Wright

Illustration by Morgan Wright

"We gathered there with the sole purpose of looking into the eyes of a stranger."

I was sceptical. Because the event was experimental, I knew that I would not be alone in being unfamiliar with such a task. I am obviously familiar with making eye contact with people; however, I had never made such unwavering, prolonged, intentional eye contact with a stranger before. With my mom’s old yoga mat in hand, I anxiously flitted through the crowd, trying to meet someone’s eyes in the hope of forging a “human connection.” I ultimately landed in front of a middle-aged woman with green eyes. The sun threatened to interfere with what what was supposed to be uninhibited eye contact, but we persisted. It was challenging to avoid verbal communication, as it is uncomfortable to approach someone without acknowledging him or her in some way.

Beyond the gentle coaching of Knight, the confused interjections of passers-by, and the hum of Boston traffic, the interaction between me and the green-eyed woman was silent. I will likely never see her again, and I have no means of contacting her as I do not even know her name. However, I do feel as though we created a minor, yet discernible connection that would not have existed without our mutual, willful decision to put ourselves in an unfamiliar situation in order to test the bounds of human connectivity.

The experience left me feeling awkward. It left me feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. It left me feeling connected.

To learn more about the Liberators and upcoming events that are similar to this one, visit eyecontactexperiment.com.