An artist once intentionally looked into my eyes whilst I was sat in the staff room of my local art college. He tried to pierce my gaze but couldn’t. He said he could not see past my eyes, he could not see into me, and that there was nothing there. I think that slightly frustrated him. As I was a life model at the time, perhaps it affected how he could draw me. You see, my eyes were not windows into my soul, my eyes were not a cliché, they did not reveal a complexity of underlying layers begging to be exposed, I wasn’t going to melt into a pool of emotion and reveal my depths to him. Rather, my eyes put a halt on his gaze, and anyone else’s who tried to trick me into revealing my inner self, they made the reflection of their own eyes dig back into their own minds and reveal more about themselves than they could ever hope to find out about me. Nobody could get into my mind through my eyes, I wasn’t going to let them. I read them instead. The artist was wrong of course, saying there was nothing there, there was just nothing there that I wanted him to see.
I think when people try to read another person’s character by looking into their eyes, they do not always consider what that person is projecting out from their own mind. How we allow people to read us is dependent upon how close we really want them to get. With mental awareness comes a great capacity to control the mind. Many think that living with mental diversity is all about losing one’s mind, being out of control, about being visually miserable and expressively gloomy all the time or about doing wacky things to the extreme.This, as you will appreciate, is a gross misunderstanding. A complete calmness and cool detachment is also a skill that we, living with various issues, often develop as a consequence of that misunderstanding, as a protection mechanism against those who have preconceived negative ideas about the variety of exquisite mind conditions that exist beautifully side by side. This means that we are often in better control of how we want people to see us than are most others. At a glance, the eyes can reveal all or reveal nothing.
However, my personal thoughts aside, on a more practical note, there is some evidence to suggest that mental illness can be detected through the eyes. A few years ago a test was devised by a team at the University of Aberdeen to test eye movement and its links to adult psychiatric disorders. By tracking subtle eye movement it is thought that major depression, bipolar and schizophrenia can be diagnosed more quickly than by just looking at symptoms alone (University of Aberdeen News, 2015). Similar research is being undertaken at the University of Illinois in Chicago where a catalogue of eye movements is being built using data from people living with psychiatric disorders (Schulman, 2016). It is thought that we display irregular eye movements when we live with psychiatric disorders so studying them can lead to earlier diagnosis as patterns can emerge that indicate particular features of a particular disorder. Schulman, in Psychology Today states that: “these abnormalities, researchers say, reflect defects in the neural circuitry of the brain—defects that are well documented but as yet poorly understood” (Schulman, 2016). Inconsistencies in the movement of the eyes has been recorded in test subjects so this catalogue can be compiled over time. It is hoped that eye movement tests will help in the early diagnosis of psychiatric disorders and identify “high risk individuals” (Science Daily, 2003) and therefore with early awareness, help to prevent symptoms developing or worsening. One study carried out in collaboration between the University of Aberdeen, the University of Munich and the National Institute of Mental Health in America took test subjects from a schizophrenia and a non schizophrenia group and used the following eye movement tests (taken from the NHS UK website):
“ Smooth pursuit, which involves smoothly tracking a moving object on a screen for 20 seconds .
Fixation or gaze maintenance, which involves steadily holding one’s gaze on a single, unmoving object for five seconds while ignoring a distracting object to the side of the target
Free-viewing scanpaths, which trace how a person’s gaze moves around a picture of objects, faces, computer-generated images or everyday scenes that appeared on a screen for eight seconds” (NHS, UK, 2012)
The results showed that eye movement was indeed different in the schizophrenia group than the non schizophrenia group.
This is interesting, and very technical, but, however science tries to quantify our mental well-being through our eyes, I prefer to think that I have control over my gaze. How anyone sees me, well, that’s up to them, maybe the artist at the beginning of this article had a point, maybe he couldn’t read me because of my mental state at the time, he didn’t know me, maybe my eyes just didn’t want to give anything away. What do your eyes reveal about you?
nhs.uk. (2012). ‘100% accurate’ eye test for schizophrenia claim. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/100-accurate-eye-test-for-schizophrenia-claim/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
Schulman, D. (2016). The Eyes and Mental Illness. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/articles/200309/the-eyes-and-mental-illness [Accessed 9 Apr. 2019].
University Of Illinois At Chicago. Eye Movement Studies To Help Diagnose Mental Illness. In ScienceDaily. (2003) [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/06/030618080220.htm [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
University of Aberdeen. (2015). The eyes have it – promising outlook for psychiatric test News The University of Aberdeen. [online] Abdn.ac.uk. Available at: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/8357/ [Accessed 9 Apr. 2019].