Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, May 11, 2009

Eye contact? Part 2

"Eye contact", or prolonged mutual gaze, is something adults do when they want to communicate some emotional information. They may stare in order to try to intimidate another person, who looks back in resistance or drops her eyes in submissive response. They may gaze in order to flirt with an attractive companion, who may avoid the gaze, make repeated brief eye contact in a coy way, and perhaps finally permit a long mutual gaze as he or she acknowledges interest. Strangers who want to play with a baby they meet in public may keep on trying to catch the baby's gaze-- but for babies of 8-10 months old or older, this action is alarming, and the more the stranger tries, the more the baby avoids the look or even begins to cry. Lovers walking toward each other in public maintain their mutual gaze, and so do parents and toddlers as they approach each other, but acquaintances only glance at each other periodically, and even when standing together and talking will make and break eye contact frequently.

So, eye contact indicates the nature of a relationship or of the attitude of one person toward another. But, does eye contact actually cause the relationship, as would be suggested by popular beliefs about parents gazing into babies' eyes? Is the attachment of a toddler to a parent based on past experience of eye contact?

When several factors seem to work together, or have mutual effects on each other, it's quite hard to tell which cause determines which outcome. This is especially true when we can only look at natural events rather than doing experimentation. Sometimes, fortunately, natural events provide us with some information that can rule out an explanation.

Considering the connection between eye contact and attachment, it turns out that we do have some natural events that tell us that eye contact is at most one of several causes of attachment. There are some babies for whom a typical experience of eye contact is not possible. There are babies who are born blind or who lose their vision very early in life, and there are sighted babies who have blind parents. In either case, the baby and its parents did not spend time making "eye contact", although up to a few months of age a blind baby may appear to be doing so. Nevertheless, blind babies do develop attachment to their parents, provided they have opportunities for consistent caregiving experiences and social interactions like vocalization or mutual touch.

The fact of attachment without the opportunity for eye contact suggests that the cause and effect connection may be the other way around: that is, toddlers make eye contact with their parents because they are attached to them, not vice-versa.

What about autism? One of the most common ideas about autistic children is that they avoid eye contact and therefore fail to learn the ways of emotional communication which typical humans use with each other. It does seem to be the case that autistic toddlers don't show the "joint attention" behavior of shifting the gaze from someone's eyes to an interesting object and back again, nor do they use eye contact to try to get an adult to do something for them. A typically-developing toddler who wants help to open a container will make eye contact with an adult and hold the container out to the person; an autistic toddler does not gaze at the adult's eyes, but reaches for the person's hand and tries to put it on the container. However, recent research suggests that autistic children can actually pay attention to things they are not apparently "looking at", so questions about their gaze may need a lot more work.

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