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This Is The Reason You Should Make Eye Contact, Even On A Zoom Call

Jamie Schneider
Author:
October 07, 2020
Jamie Schneider
Former Senior Beauty & Lifestyle Editor
By Jamie Schneider
Former Senior Beauty & Lifestyle Editor
Jamie Schneider is the former Senior Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Woman on a video call at home
Image by Stereo Shot / Stocksy
October 07, 2020
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We know eye contact is generally a good practice: A strong gaze can lead to greater confidence, deeper intimacy, and it can help you become a better listener. But did you know eye contact actually has some neurological benefits? According to science journalist and author of Friendship Lydia Denworth, eye contact is paramount for healthy social connections. "When we make eye contact, it primes the social brain," she explains on the mindbodygreen podcast.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the pandemic—as social distancing remains in full effect, you might not meet anyone's gaze, save for a few trips to the grocery store or walk around the block.

Good news! Denworth shares that virtual eye contact might have similar benefits—something to think about before you click Join Call. 

The importance of eye contact. 

"Essentially, [eye contact] activates the parts of the brain that are good at communicating and thinking about how another person is perceiving the world, a concept generally known as 'theory of mind,'" says Denworth. Specifically, research has found that a direct gaze engaged the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) regions in the brain1, both of which are involved in social information processing and theory of mind. 

On another note, eye contact can help rein in your brain's fight-or-flight response: In Stephen Porges, Ph.D.'s (who coined the polyvagal theory2) research on the social engagement system, he notes that one of the easiest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve3 is to engage in nonthreatening eye contact. 

Why you should make virtual eye contact, too.

To get your eye contact fix, Denworth says that a virtual gaze can work, too. "It seems that eye contact IRL looks one way in your brain, and on video chat it looks a little different, and then on the phone it looks different again," she says.

That said, virtual eye contact is better than none at all, especially if you're feeling lonely: According to a study on 1,400 older U.S. adults more likely to feel socially isolated, those who connected with others on video calls had a lower risk of developing depression4 compared to those who used only audio and instant messaging. And with respect to the nervous system, a recent study found that virtual eye contact had the same impact on the vagus nerve that an IRL gaze does. 

The bottom line? There's a hierarchy of sorts when it comes to eye contact: In-person connection reigns supreme, with video calls close behind and phone calls or emails hovering at the bottom. So if you can't connect IRL (ahem, social distancing), chatting over video is truly the next best thing. 

The takeaway. 

Eye contact is an essential component of social connection, which is crucial for overall well-being. And while an in-person gaze is best, a video call does have some noteworthy benefits. Take it from Denworth: "It's better than nothing," she says. "And it's an important thing to do if somebody is feeling isolated." 

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