Photos by Allison Elkin
I'm the type of person who would rather stare at ads on the subway than accidentally make eye contact with a stranger. There have been times when I opted to gaze at a candy wrapper on the floor of a streetcar in lieu of catching someone's glance. When I heard that there was going to be a global eye contact experiment—and that the city I live in, Toronto, would be included—I immediately thought it was going to be like being stuck in an Upworthy video.
The World's Biggest Eye Contact Experiment was held on October 15 at over 100 cities globally—including those in Asia, South America, and Europe—by the Liberators International, a social movement collective from Australia. The day was set up with the aim of engaging people in deeper connection with themselves and others in their communities.
Despite some of my friends commenting about how gross it sounded, and that it betrayed the part of me that sometimes hates other humans, I decided to go to Christie Pits, a public park in Toronto where the experiment was taking place. There was a small area sectioned off with signs and populated by paired-off, child-sized hula hoops for participants to sit as afternoon rush-hour traffic whizzed by. I sat down at an empty spot and waited for someone to approach me. I was so nervous when Clive, a guy who looked like a hot dad with speckles of gray in his hair and light gray-blue eyes, took the place across from me. All I could think about was the deep regret I felt about my sobriety at the moment.After about 20 seconds of looking into Clive's eyes, I couldn't help myself and burst out in chatter; I was moments away from having a full-fledged panic attack. He told me in the nicest way possible to shut the fuck up, and after, we began to hold hands while I grinned like an idiot. I began realizing just how different each person's eyes truly are and entered a wormhole of an embarrassingly corny internal thought process about humanity—something I'm pretty sure I've only done while in the grasp of mind-altering substances. After breaking eye contact, I stood up and, alarmingly, I realized how high I felt. My face was tingling and reddened, I was warm all over, I couldn't stop smiling, yet was extremely calm and slightly nauseated.
Tharshiga Elankeeran, a therapist with a special focus on holistic practices like meditation and reiki, initiated the event in Toronto. I found her as she was walking around handing out shortbread cookies, and told her about how high I felt after doing the eye contact experiment as I ate one covered in pistachio crumbles. She said, "I don't have an explanation for you, but I felt that as well. Definitely after my first one when I first started, I was like, Wow, what's going on? Like, I did feel a high."Experimentation with eye contact is definitely not a new concept. In 2010, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović sat in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in silence during museum hours each day for a duration of three months and made eye contact with whomever decided to sit across from her. But was she really just getting on a three-month bender fueled by eye contact?
Twenty minutes after I arrived at the Toronto event and had done just one session of eye contact with a random, a torrential downpour complete with autumn leaves swirling in hurricane-like wind infringed on my high-ness. Most of the 30-some people at the event gathered under nearby trees, unable to avoid being sprayed with cold droplets of rain. Others held umbrellas over themselves and stayed put, cross-legged on the ground, unwilling to break their gazes.I had invited my friend Chris along with me, but when we tried making eye contact for 60 seconds, I didn't really feel as much as I did with strangers. We've known each other for several years; maybe it is something specifically about the interaction with someone we don't know that makes it more intense, kind of like how some people are really into one-night stands. After that, I got back to connecting with randoms in an attempt to figure out if I only felt the strange sense of being high with certain people.
As I took shelter, I spoke to another attendee, Jeffrey, who looked like the kind of urban hippie you would find at Burning Man. His dog Taurus kept going up to pairs of people mid-eye contact trying to lure them into playing frisbee with him. Jeffrey told me his profession was "combating negativity," using his plans to start communal fire with the goal of bringing people together at places like city hall as an example. Somewhat unintentionally, I ended up doing the eye contact experiment with him as I asked him questions. "That's really why I think people do certain substances: They're trying to connect to the space inside," he told me. "That's actually why we're all here, is for each other, so that we can experience this feeling of aloneness together."
After the rain died down, I sat with Laura, a young woman who just started university. Once again, I felt high. Laura, however, said she wasn't feeling the way that I described. Next, I locked eyes with a man in his 60s with thick glasses named Nelson, a retired teacher who takes clown classes in his spare time. I was able to feel something else from him—like sensing the immense number of experiences, and pain, he had gone through in his life. Then I stared into the green-blue eyes of a woman who hugged me after and thanked me for being who I am and for sharing the experience with her. I watched people around me in every range of emotions, some with tears streaming down their faces and others laughing hysterically. At one point, a couple of curious police officers came and tried out the experiment for themselves.
I'm still trying to figure out why I felt the way I did and why some others felt it too. Surely it must have something to do with a biochemical reaction, perhaps one involving the "love hormone" oxytocin, known to be associated with positive eye-gazing experiences—after all, contact of this type is usually only done with someone you love. Still, other scientific studies say that personality affects the way we respond to eye contact. But Mark, a man who I locked eyes with last and had a similar reaction as me, said, "I've done a fair amount of drugs in my life, and this, this is way better."Follow Allison Elkin on Twitter.