Have you ever seen one of those old-time horror films where the vampire or some other villain, compels the poor, innocent girl to do his bidding by saying: “Look deep into my eyes!” This was the statement (together with the evil-one’s burning red eyes) that we were supposed to believe hypnotized the poor innocent. Of course, that’s not how hypnotism works (actually, it’s pretty much just the opposite where you might focus on something neutral or just close your eyes and relax). The point is, those movie people knew that we kids, sequestered in the velvet seats of yore, would be absolutely terrified by those eyes!
Beyond just frightening the stuffings out of us in the movies, most of us realize eyes communicate with other beings in a way that even words may not be able to express. So powerful is this silent communication, that even very old people can often recall (with mirth or remembered shame) the “look” their mother gave them when they had done something wrong.
In numerous studies, people have been able to detect the emotion conveyed, when briefly shown a picture depicting the eyes of someone who feels a particular emotion: love, anger, surprise, etc. I believe we can sense the same feeling when we look deep into our dog’s eyes. As Martin Buber said: “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”
One of the most striking results to have come out of studies regarding eye communication has been the discovery of oxytocin, which floods the new mother when she looks into the eyes of her baby. This may be, scientists now believe, the hormonal basis of the essential bond between mother and child.
Interestingly, this communication arc, the bond that comes from gazing deeply into another’s eyes, was recently studied in mankind’s closest ally: the dog. No where else in the animal kingdom can a human stare into the eyes of another mammal and receive the same stare in return, to denote not threat (as with almost all other mammals) but — and forgive the anthropomorphic semantics, but there simply is no other word to describe it — love.
A Japanese study of communication between humans and dogs, which was reported in Science (April 17, 2015), found that mutually gazing into each other’s eyes increased the oxytocin concentration both in the human and their dog. The researchers also nasally administered saline and oxytocin in the dogs. Dogs given the nasal oxytocin increased their gazing behavior, which in turn increased oxytocin concentrations in their human partner. As an intriguing counterpoint, the same study incorporated wolves, but none of the wolves responded with increased gazing. In fact the wolves, which were hand-reared by humans, continued to look away from their human handlers — which may account for their inability to be “domesticated.”
Even chimpanzees, our closest respective relative, is not as adept at using human social communicative behavior. A simple, but brilliant study, where people showed a treat to the chimp, hid it, then pointed to where it was, left the chimps completely perplexed and unable to retrieve their reward. But when a person did the same thing with a dog (showing the treat, hiding it, then pointing to where it was hidden) the dog “got it” immediately and invariably went right to the spot where the human was pointing to unearth the hidden treat.
So, what can we make of this study from Japan and why is it important? Simply put, mutual gazing between human and dog increases oxytocin, which creates an interspecies form of attachment. This, in turn, may explain the deep bond we have with our dogs, a connection between species that is exceptionally rare among any other animals. Although this bond is not exclusive as recent books and videos have illustrated – e.g., a piglet and a boxer, a zebra and a donkey, a dolphin and a stray cat, etc., pairs who appear to be best friends (Holland, J. Unlikely Loves, Workman Publishing, 2013) – such interspecies attachments are so unusual, they are notable when it happens.
Thus, not only have we come to realize that the dog is, essentially, beyond any other mammal, proficient in using human social communication behaviors, but that “look of love” you think you see when you gaze into your dog’s eyes — well, it’s really there.
Cue music from Dusty Springfield or Diana Krall:
The look of love. Is in your eyes.
The look your smile can’t disguise.
The look of love is saying so much more.
Than just words could ever say.
We started this post at the movies, so given this story, we thought it might be appropriate to end it with one of film’s most famous lines:
“Here’s lookin’ at you kid.”
Resources – Special thanks to Linda Ablin who kindly sent me the Science magazine issue from which this article was extrapolated.
Photos – Images in this blog were provided by the talented Gloria Yarina. Her book, Captured . . . The Look of the Dog is available through Amazon or via email: TheLookoftheDog@gmail.com.