Eye movements reveal difference between love and lust

Soul singer Betty Everett once proclaimed, “If you want to know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.” But a new study by University of Chicago researchers suggests the difference between love and lust might be in the eyes after all.

Specifically, where your date looks at you could indicate whether love or lust is in the cards. The new study found that eye patterns concentrate on a stranger’s face if the viewer sees that person as a potential partner in romantic love, but the viewer gazes more at the other person’s body if he or she is feeling sexual desire. That automatic judgment can occur in as little as half a second, producing different gaze patterns.

“Although little is currently known about the science of love at first sight or how people fall in love, these patterns of response provide the first clues regarding how automatic attentional processes, such as eye gaze, may differentiate feelings of love from feelings of desire toward strangers,” noted lead author Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the UChicago High-Performance Electrical NeuroImaging Laboratory. Cacioppo co-authored the report, now published online in the journal Psychological Science, with colleagues from UChicago’s Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, and the University of Geneva.

Previous research by Cacioppo has shown that different networks of brain regions are activated by love and sexual desire. In this study, the team performed two experiments to test visual patterns in an effort to assess two different emotional and cognitive states that are often difficult to disentangle from one another—romantic love and sexual desire (lust).

Male and female students from the University of Geneva viewed a series of black-and-white photographs of persons they had never met. In part one of the study, participants viewed photos of young, adult heterosexual couples who were looking at or interacting with each other. In part two, participants viewed photographs of attractive individuals of the opposite sex who were looking directly at the camera/viewer. None of the photos contained nudity or erotic images.

In both experiments, participants were placed before a computer and asked to look at different blocks of photographs and decide as rapidly and precisely as possible whether they perceived each photograph or the persons in the photograph as eliciting feelings of sexual desire or romantic love. The study found no significant difference in the time it took subjects to identify romantic love versus sexual desire, which shows how quickly the brain can process both emotions, the researchers believe.

But analysis of the eye-tracking data from the two studies revealed marked differences in eye movement patterns, depending on whether the subjects reported feeling sexual desire or romantic love. People tended to visually fixate on the face, especially when they said an image elicited a feeling of romantic love. However, with images that evoked sexual desire, the subjects’ eyes moved from the face to fixate on the rest of the body. The effect was found for male and female participants.

“By identifying eye patterns that are specific to love-related stimuli, the study may contribute to the development of a biomarker that differentiates feelings of romantic love versus sexual desire,” said co-author John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “An eye-tracking paradigm may eventually offer a new avenue of diagnosis in clinicians’ daily practice or for routine clinical exams in psychiatry and/or couple therapy.”

It’s a pity that photographs don’t so justice to the majestic supermoon we have tonight.


The anatomy of fear: Understanding the biological underpinnings of anxiety, phobias and PTSD

Fear in a mouse brain looks much the same as fear in a human brain.

When a frightening stimulus is encountered, the thalamus shoots a message to the amygdala — the primitive part of the brain — even before it informs the parts responsible for higher cognition. The amygdala then goes into its hard-wired fight-or-flight response, triggering a host of predictable symptoms, including racing heart, heavy breathing, startle response, and sweating.

The similarities of fear response in the brains of mice and men have allowed scientists to understand the neural circuitry and molecular processes of fear and fear behaviors perhaps better than any other response. That understanding has spurred breakthroughs in treatments for psychiatric disorders that are underpinned by fear.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in the country, with nearly one-third of Americans experiencing symptoms at least once during their lives. There are generalized anxiety disorders and fear-related disorders, which include panic disorders, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

Emory psychiatrist and researcher Kerry Ressler is on the front lines of fear-disorder research. In his lab at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, he studies the molecular and cellular mechanisms of fear learning and extinction in mouse models. At Grady Memorial Hospital, he investigates the psychology, genetics, and biology of PTSD. And through the Grady Trauma Project, he works to draw attention to the problem of inner city intergenerational violence.

"If you look at Kerry’s work, it can seem like it’s all over the place — he’s got so many studies going on, and he collaborates with so many other scientists," says Barbara Rothbaum, associate vice chair of clinical research in psychiatry and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory. "But they are all pieces to the same puzzle. All his work, from molecular to clinical to policy, fits together and starts telling a story." A Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Ressler was recently elected to the Institute of Medicine — one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine. He was named a member of a new national PTSD consortium led by Draper Laboratory. And he recently appeared on the Charlie Rose show’s brain series.

Panic attacks seem to tie the fear-related disorders together, he explained on Charlie Rose. Everyone experiences fear, which evolved as a survival mechanism, but it only rises to a clinical level when people are unable to function normally in the face of it. For instance, PTSD includes not only intrusive thoughts, memories, nightmares, and startle responses, but also the concept of avoidance, which may extend to other areas of the individual’s life.

"There’s a patient I’ve seen who was attacked in a dark alley," Ressler shared on the show. "Initially it just felt dangerous to go out at night, but after a while she grew afraid of men and couldn’t go to that part of town. Then she couldn’t leave her house, and finally, her bedroom. The world got more and more dangerous."

Surrounded By Digital Distractions, We Can't Even Stop To Think

With hindsight, this study makes a lot of sense. I have met many people over the years who are uncomfortable in silence. We would be friends, for a while, but we would eventually drift apart in the quiet. I often stop to reflect on life, it feels quite natural, and the best friends I have share this feeling.