By Amy Williams
It was an early autumn day when I stepped way outside of my comfort zone and joined complete strangers sitting silently on the grass, staring at each other.
I was at Auckland's Albert Park for an eye gazing event that had popped up on my Facebook feed a few weeks earlier, piquing my curiosity. Staring on purpose? My mother, and probably yours, always told me not to stare at people, because staring is impolite.
But here I was. Within seconds of looking into the eyes of the event's facilitator, Shin Nummy, I felt self-conscious; the time slowly ticking by. To release my discomfort I laughed and looked away before returning his gaze, trying to maintain focus.
This was the first time I've started an interview without talking, but after the initial awkwardness I started to feel like we were ... friends. Weird, I know. I lasted perhaps another minute before I broke eye contact with a smile and a question - why do you do this?
"It's really nice doing this because anyone can walk past and connect with another person. Human connection is really important to me," says Nummy, 34, who works as a tofu-maker.
The Human Connection Movement organises and promotes the eye gazing events as a way to connect more deeply with others. Their public eye gazing events started this year (held monthly in Auckland, the latest was rained out) where anyone can join in just by sitting opposite someone else and looking. Participants are encouraged to talk after eye gazing.
To most of us, that sounds pretty daunting. But why is that? What it is about eye contact that can make us feel so uncomfortable? And with the likes of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram competing for our attention, does it even matter? How important is eye-to-eye time?
Researchers have long known that eye contact is an important social signal, and one that we soak in right from day one. The University of London's Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development says that making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a communicative link between humans.
In 2002, the centre conducted two experiments to demonstrate how babies process direct eye contact from birth, finding that newborns prefer to look at faces that engage them in a mutual gaze and that, from an early age, most babies are also able to take in a direct gaze. (A lack of eye contact is one of the early signs of autism in infants and toddlers.) Their conclusion? Mutual gaze from birth helps to lay a major foundation for the later development of social skills.
Professor Will Hayward, 49, a psychology professor at the University of Hong Kong, specialises in visual attention, understanding how we make sense of the world that we see and hear. He says eye contact is something that develops naturally and is automatic for people, and therefore is not something we need to practise, like exercise.
He says that looking into another person's eyes builds intimacy as we give and receive information about our emotions and intentions, so the more we gaze, the more intimate we feel the connection.
"If you gaze into a stranger's eyes, you begin to feel like you're sending signals and getting signals about the level of intimacy that you actually know you're not having, and that becomes really weird."
Hayward cites an experiment conducted by a group of psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who sat two strangers opposite each other and asked them to look into each other's eyes and not look away, just to see what happened.
"The natural thing is they'd look at each other and within about 10 seconds they just started laughing and needed to do something to ease the tension because they couldn't just sit there and do it," he says.
However, the study found strangers who were asked to look straight at each other after playing a competitive game could hold a gaze - they treated it as a staring competition.
Hayward says we tend to automatically adjust our gaze to suit a social situation. But that's where the social cues can come unstuck, because some cultures are polar opposites in the way they view eye contact, with some seeing it as a sign of respect and others a sign of disrespect.
He suggests being aware of cultural differences and moderating your gaze accordingly.
As for sustained eye contact, Hayward says he wouldn't warn people off eye gazing as a means to feel more connected to others.
And what about our tendency today to focus on our mobile screens? Does that change anything?
"I think more generally, devices can get in the way of communication. If I'm talking to my wife and sending an email on my phone, then it's a distraction certainly, but I'm not sure that it's training us to be poor at making eye contact."
ON Facebook, the eye gazing event attracted 200 people interested in going, but a smaller crowd turned up on the day, many of them university students.
Amy Crerar, 19, went along with a friend thinking it would be weird, but she admits to underestimating how uncomfortable it would be.
"I just marched in there and thought 'it's just people sitting on the grass staring at each other' but to start with it was quite awkward and I found myself looking away from the person quite a bit."
An arts student at university, Crerar won the national high school spoken word poetry slam with her group last year, and is interested in all forms of communication.
"I've always known that sharing eye contact is a really important feature of a conversation but I wanted to test myself on how well I did that and whether or not it would be challenging for me."
She found the experience helpful, and would try it again.
"I've taken something from it that has been triggered in other conversations in my life. When I'm talking to someone I'm more aware that you can get a lot out of the physical connection to them."
So does eye gazing attract a certain type of person - hipsters and alternative types? Nummy certainly ticks all the boxes for what I'd expect an eye gazer to be - a vegan who practises yoga. I wouldn't consider myself the target market (as a mum of three littlies), although perhaps I could inch in on Nummy's yoga mat given I brew my own kombucha.
Among the crowd gathered on the grass is a woman dressed head-to-toe in fire-engine red, a young pair holding hands while eye gazing (they've just met), and a meditation veteran.
"It's so broad because you have those people who are wanting human connection and who are really quite shy but they think 'oh maybe I could just sit down and do this for a couple of minutes'," Nummy says.
He admits to once being extremely introverted, not wanting to sit next to people on buses and generally keeping to himself. When he tried eye gazing at a mediation class seven years ago, he felt a connection with other eye gazers that helped him out of his shell.
He's come a long way - the day we eye gazed, Nummy had been at a free hugs event in town the night before, bowling up to people and asking if they'd like a hug.
He says genuine connections can occur when people eye gaze and and it's normal for people to laugh. "A lot of things can come up during eye gazing which is nice. Sometimes it's uncontrollable laughter, it's really great. I've only cried happy tears. It's good for releasing things."
Australian igor Kreyman, 31, set up the Human Connection Movement about a year ago to encourage people to connect through sustained eye contact. He believes people don't connect with each other on the street or in the shop as they may have a few generations ago.
On the phone (not eye-to-eye via Skype, due to logistics) he says he was introduced to eye gazing while pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles five years ago, and had enjoyed the sense of connection, and wanted to make it more accessible for anyone to try.
Most of the movement's eye gazing events are held in Australia (the day of the Auckland event, there were five events across the Tasman), but the movement has also spread to Los Angeles, Mumbai and Nashville. In Melbourne these events attract 300-500 people.
Kreyman admits there's been more interest than he can sustain, and he recently quit his day job in the IT industry to run the movement. "I'm very interested in the human condition. I feel like I can't help myself I do it everywhere, I'm always watching. I'm fascinated by everyone," he says.
His longest eye gazes last more than half an hour. "Some people you find yourself looking at for a lot longer. You find a point of reference, one eye to connect to, and if there's an authentic connection between people and an equal exchange of energy it lasts," he says.
Not surprisingly, staring at someone's eye (it's too difficult to focus on two eyes at the same time for so long) messes with your vision.
"One thing people say is that everything in the background dissolves and some people see the faces change, people appear older.
"It really becomes a very eye-opening experience because you realise there's no separation between you and the other person and you feel unified."
Kreyman was also been inspired by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, who sat silent and still for more than 700 hours opposite an endless stream of strangers who had queued to eye gaze with her in 2010.
The show, The Artist is Present in New York, was held at the city's Museum of Modern Art and a video of one interaction went spectacularly viral, attracting more than 14.6 million views.
It showed the artist looking up to find her ex-lover in the seat opposite her. She blinks in surprise, tears well in her eyes. She reaches out and they hold hands, then his time is up and the waiting public breaks into applause.
For people who might try eye gazing at home, he says the key is to let go of any expectations, relax and be present with your partner.
"As you start connecting and experiencing different sensations, allow them to be there, let go and feel it. If both people are experiencing things, and you get off the train, it stops."
Some people even make a more lasting connection at these events. Kreyman received an email from an author who had attended an event in Australia years ago, who had met his life partner while eye gazing.
"He described it as a soul kiss. He felt his soul had come out of his body and hers had come out of her body, kissed, then gone back in. Everything was there and they were both like, yes this is it. Not long after, they married."
Effective eye contact
• Be aware of body language - has the other person's posture changed, do they seem uncomfortable with the level of eye contact?
• Modify your eye contact and body language to suit the social situation.
• Try not to judge other people's eye contact or lack of with your own understanding - there can be vast cultural differences in the way people perceive eye contact.
Tips for eye gazing
• Relax and be aware of your breathing, focus on being present.
• Choose one of your partner's eyes to focus on.
• Let emotions come to the surface.
• It's okay to laugh - most people have a giggle at some point.
• When you've had enough, simply smile and break eye contact.
• Now's the time to talk about the experience.