Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

Did you know that your eyes really are the window into your soul? Or at least a window into your current emotional state? By understanding how your eyes connect to your emotions, you can learn to tap into curiosity to help you let go of anxiety and fear.

Have you ever wondered why many professional poker players wear dark sunglasses during televised tournaments? It isn’t because of the glare of the camera lights. They do this so no one can read their eyes to gain an advantage over them. There is even a term for this: a “tell.” A tell is a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that gives clues about the cards they hold. These changes are often unconscious, so they could be telling other players whether they have a good hand or a bad one without knowing it.

Charles Darwin theorized that in the face of uncertainty, we open our eyes to literally gather more sensory information about whether there is danger ahead.

If you’ve seen the James Bond movie Casino Royale, you might remember Bond trying to figure out the bad guy’s tell during a high-stakes game. I won’t spoil it by telling you how he did. And of course you can read about common poker tells on the internet. Many of the tips for how to spot a tell have you focus on your opponent’s eyes. It’s really hard to stop or mask involuntary eye movements and expressions that we’ve exhibited throughout our lives, and it’s much easier to simply wear a pair of dark shades instead.

Let’s explore some of the science at work here.

What do we instinctively do with our eyes when we’re afraid? We open them really wide. Charles Darwin theorized that in the face of uncertainty, we open our eyes to literally gather more sensory information about whether there is danger ahead. Eye widening, when combined with other facial cues of fear, also serves as a social signal to let others know we are afraid. Someone can look at our face and quickly read, “Hey, there might be danger out there,” without us saying a word.

Opening our eyes really wide doesn’t just happen because of fear. It’s something we do to gather other types of information. We see this in the popular phrase “my eyes are wide open,” meaning we’re not ignoring something and are seeing it clearly. How about when you’re really interested in learning something? What do your eyes do when you are really curious? They get big and wide, don’t they? This may be where the phrase “wide-eyed wonder” comes from.

In an earlier column on how we can use curiosity to conquer fear, I talked about associative somatic memories. This is how we learn to pair body sensations and positions with emotions. For example, let’s say something is about to hit you. What do you instinctively do in response to this threat — open up or close down? You close your body, making yourself as small as possible, and you use your arms and legs to shield and protect your head and vital organs. Guess what? Your eyes do the same thing.

Let’s play with this right now.

Open your eyes really wide and think of something that made you frustrated or angry. Try to keep your eyes really wide and see how angry you can get. “Oh, I’m really angry!” How well did that work? Not well, I bet. When we’re angry, we’re laser focused on doing something. We’re not out there asking, “Hmm, what really happened? Let me gather more information.” Our brain is not in information-gathering mode. Instead, we’re intent on acting on whatever provoked the anger. Hence our eyes are narrowed, not wide open, when we’re angry. This narrowed-eye expression of anger is so locked in that when you open your eyes and try to become angry, your brain gets confused because there is a mismatch between your facial expression and your emotions. It’s very hard to get angry with your eyes wide open.

What do your eyes do when you are really curious? They get big and wide, don’t they?

Now let’s do another exercise. Narrow your eyes as much as you can, and then try to get really curious. “Oh, I’m really curious!”

How well does that work? Also not so well! The same thing is happening here: Your brain is used to pairing your eyes being really wide open with curiosity and wonder. Remember: With curiosity, you’re in information-gathering mode. That’s why it’s hard to narrow your eyes and get curious. When you try, your brain says, “Hey, wait a minute. If you’re really curious, your eyes should be open. Are you sure you’re curious?”

The eyes are a great tell for expressions in general. We’ve linked eye expressions with emotions for so long that the two are really tightly coupled. And knowing that, we can hack this simple system to help us move from frustration and anxiety into curiosity. Here’s how.

The next time you’re frustrated or anxious, try this three-step process:

  1. Stop and simply name the emotion you’re feeling: “Oh, that’s X.”
  2. Notice how narrow or wide your eyes are.
  3. Open your eyes really wide as a way to jump-start your curiosity. Keep them really wide for 10 seconds, and notice what happens to the anxiety (or whatever difficult emotion you’ve identified). Does it get stronger or weaker? Does it change in character or shift in some other way?

Once you get the hang of this, see how often you can repeat this exercise. Practice it in short moments many times throughout the day whenever a difficult emotion arises to see if it can open you up a bit to leaning into those emotions and learning from them (and learning about yourself), while at the same time helping you solidify the habit of being curious.

I’ll end with a quote from Alice in Wonderland:

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

So, see if today you can test this little trick of opening your eyes wide. Surprise yourself with the simple power of curiosity.


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