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The Look of Love: In the Eye of the Beholder

February 14, 2018

Ah, Valentine’s Day. The most romantic day of the year. The day of the year where couples looking longingly into each other’s eyes across candlelit tables.

But what is it about the eyes that are so alluring?

No less of an esteemed authority than the philosopher, abolitionist, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau asserted that “The eye is the jewel of the body,” suggesting that the eyes might be the premier human feature to inspire attraction, veneration, and celebration as expressed in poems and love songs across every culture.

While almost every part of the human body regenerates itself in regular (if lengthy) intervals throughout the lifespan, there are a few notable exceptions. The only dimensions of the body that last an entire life are the neurons of the cerebral cortex, the muscle cells of the heart, and the inner lens of the eye.

In fact, the inner lens of the eye is the oldest part of the body. The inner lens cells form in embryo at the earliest stages of gestation, posing poetic kinds of questions about the mysterious ways that the eyes quite literally open into the deepest recesses of our being, leaving one to wonder if perhaps the saying, “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” might be more than just a figure of speech.

When we are “in love” with someone or something, we often talk about “opening our heart” to them, but we could just as well say we “open our eyes.” When human beings encounter a peak “object of interest” –  be it an attractive person who “catches our eye,” a shiny new sports car, a painting by a master artist, a newborn child laid in her mother’s arms, or a sunset that takes our breath away – our pupils dilate, opening to “take in” the object of our interest.

Far from being a “passive” or “neutral” phenomenon, vision itself is an active perceptual process that involves ocular, neurological, psychological, and aesthetic dimensions in which we perceptually “sculpt” what we see and in turn are “sculpted” by it through the way it affects our experience.

This phenomenon can be observed, for example, in the experience of “seeing” a snake, feeling startled by it, only to quickly realize that it wasn’t a snake at all but a garden hose or some other benign object.

On an intuitive level, we recognize that vision is an active, non-neutral process when we say things like, “I don’t like the way he’s looking at me,” or, “I love the way she looks at me.” The maxim, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is no mere metaphor but a testament to leading-edge, research-based understanding forged at the interface of optical studies and cognitive-neuroscience. 

Another example of vision as an active process is the way we “see” the back side of an object without actually looking at it (which would require us to physically walk around it), therefore perceiving the object as 3-dimensional even though all we actually see is its front.

Yet another example of vision as an active perceptual process is the way that we can’t not “see” volume and texture when looking at a photograph of, say, a puppy. The image in the photograph actually has no texture or volume of itself, but this does not stop us from visually experiencing these dimensions, “seeing” the puppy as “soft” and “lightweight.”

At OCLI, we’re inspired by and interested in everything related to eyes and vision. As a full-service eyecare provider, we can help you with any and all of your eyecare needs, including eyewear prescriptions and frames, dry eye treatment, permanent vision correction, cataract surgery, or anything else you might be interested in! Reach out to us today for the most advanced and friendliest care around!

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