The Eyes Have It

Post Four In A Six-Month Series On People Reading

I’ll save you the typical rundown of clichés about the meaning of the eyes, and instead jump into some simple, to-the-point tells that can be found in and around the eyes.

The Pupils

Dilated pupils mean one of two things: pleasure or stress.

Pleasure as in something the subject enjoys looking at (experiments have shown women’s pupils dilate the most when looking at pictures of a mother and child) such as someone they hold affection for, an object they admire such as a painting or something of value. Pretty much strong positive emotions = dilated pupils and an easily read facial expression. Your pupils will also dilate when you’re on drugs and experiencing a ‘good trip’.

Stress can mean hatred towards someone, or simply stress from a situation. It’s obviously very easy to distinguish why someone’s pupils are dilated. You’ll never find yourself looking at someone with dilated pupils and thinking, “Hm, I can’t tell if they like me or want to strangle me…”

Though someone may have a false smile and dilated pupils, in which case figuring out if the smile is fake will not be challenge, as I will show you below:

It’s All In The Orbits

In medicine and body language alike, the area around the eye is referred to as the orbit, or, if you’re referring to both eyes, the orbits. The muscle that controls facial expressions of emotion around the eye is called the orbicularis oculi (I’ve heard it pronounced every which way, but the most common is simply ‘or-bick-you-lare-is oke-you-lie’).

Orbicularis oculi seen around the eye. Directly above it you see the muscle that covers the forehead, known as the frontalis.

When a smile is genuine, the lower outer corners of the eyes raise, sometimes causing tiny lines around the eyes.

Genuine and false smile shown by the master himself: Paul Ekman.

In case you’re wondering – no, you cannot make the orbit muscles imitate a genuine smile, you’ll see too much action around the nose and it’ll be downright obvious to any observer who knows where to look.

Remember: some facial muscles cannot be sufficiently activated unless they are expressing genuine emotion.

Therefore, you can temporarily display ‘smiling eyes’ by thinking of something that makes you happy, but only momentarily, because you can only hold onto the happiness from a memory for so long before you must endure the present reality and the muscles have no choice but to tell the truth.

Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)

Countless times I’ve seen on television shows, in blogs, in books and in magazines a common gargantuan lie. A lie about the eyes and how they reveal deceit. In a nutshell, the notion goes that if someone looks down and to the left while they’re speaking, they are fabricating their story and therefore lying.


But, there is a factor of truth in this – you can get an inkling of where someone’s thoughts are as they speak by noting eye movements, but it will never never never never be as simple as ‘Down + left = lie’. This inkling of truth comes from a concept known as neurolinguistic programming, or NLP. NLP is really much more than a guide to eye tells, but for this post, we’ll only be looking at NLP’s explanation for eye movements.

The basics of NLP go like this:

Someone remembers something they saw: eyes go up.

Someone remembers something they heard: eyes go to the side.

Someone remembers an emotion: eyes go down and to the right.

Someone is talking to themselves: down and to the left.

The problem: while we are speaking, our mind is bouncing all over the place, retrieving information, organizing thoughts, planning on what vocal inflections and volumes to use to get our point across. When we talk, our eyes will bounce around no matter what. So while NLP may be accurate and useful, remember that these signals come in clusters and happen in a fraction of a second. I can tell you from personal experience that after three years of attempting to master these signals, you just have to focus and eventually develop an intuition for it. You may not catch a lot of the signals (they are extremely difficult to catch as they’re happening, more difficult than micro-expressions), but eventually your subconscious will start looking out for them for you and you’ll find you get a lot more ‘gut feelings’ about people and what they say.

But! A note about lying and eye contact:

Despite popular belief, people who are lying will maintain eye contact longer than someone who is telling the truth. Like I said, someone who is talking will have a million things happening at once, one of these things is information retrieval, while a liar will be watching your reaction and will not require certain cognitive functions that a person telling the truth will be using.

Also, a fun trick that I use when I’m addressing a group of people or trying to hold someone’s attention while I explain something (and Heather, if you read this, I wasn’t manipulating you – just attempting to anchor your admirable, occasionally cocker-spaniel-esque attention span…you know I love you!), is using a pen, stick, pointer or any like object when explaining an idea (only when a visual aid of some sort is nearby, like a map, article, object ect.,). It goes simply like this – when explaining an idea, using the pointer to, well, point to the article, and when explaining an important part, bringing the pen up to near eye level, which automatically causes the other person to give you direct eye contact. It works every time, and no one can deny the first few times are extremely fun and amusing and sort of make you feel like the Mentalist. (I learned this trick from books by Bernard Asbell and Allan Pease.)

The Mentalist.
Must…steal…suit…and hair product…


The average relaxed blinking rate is 6-8 blinks per minute. When we’re under pressure, feel stress and anger, or otherwise a sudden burst of emotion, our blink rate will increase dramatically.

Darting Eyes

As I mentioned in my post about Harold Camping’s body language during an interview directly after the passing of one of his latest dooms dates, eyes darting from side to side can indicate someone looking for an escape route. I’ve had this happen to me on several occasions, and understanding what the signal meant let me know it was time to wrap up the conversation, lest the image they have of me in their mind become slightly negative and unpleasant.


Social Gazing:

Experiments have shown that this area is the area most commonly focused on for 90 percent of the time during social encounters. Some researchers believe this is because we feel that not looking directly into someone’s eyes will make us appear nonthreatening.

Power Gazing:

This gaze is often used in power plays among businessmen – sort of a tool of intimidation. The effect of this gaze, according to Allan Pease, “…has to be experienced to be believed.” It creates a serious atmosphere, and if used unwaveringly, can make the subject feel very uncomfortable.


Like anything in body language, in order to really be able to get accurate reads, you need to:

1. Not read too much into signals.

and 2. Practice, practice, practice. Eventually you’ll develop a reliable ‘spidey sense’.

And, apologies for not giving you much to think about for this one. As I said last time – I promise the next post will be better!

Until I Write Again,



18 thoughts on “The Eyes Have It

  1. It amazes me that you do not seem to think much of these posts. They are amazingly informative, and entertaining as well, so don’t you forget it!

    I have never consciously noticed pupil dilation, but in retrospect, I have subconsciously used that as an interpretation medium before.

    And I have definitely experience power gazing. Used it before, too. And the effect is indeed profound.

    I have never heard of NLP before, but I have heard the down-and-left assertion, and wasn’t sure what to think. So thanks for clearing that up. And for explaining that minimal eye contact does not necessarily mean lying. Finally, someone gets it.

    Anyway, great post, and I shall be back for more. 🙂

    • 😀
      I suppose I just want the posts to be more than they are. If I stumbled across them I would get bored rather quickly, and I’ve started rambling in them – something I decided to try to avoid when I started the series. But I’m glad people seem to take well to them – these days most of my views come from the series and The Bystander Effect post.

      I’ve never experienced power gazing myself, I did use a type of stare-intimidation before, where you avoid all eye contact while speaking with someone until you mention the most important point, at which point you stare at them directly. I felt terribly guilty a moment after when I saw her reaction, so I haven’t used it since.

      I wish that someone in the media would make the misunderstandings about body language signals known so people would stop hearing them and then relying on them. But body language is considered by some to be a softer science than psychology, and for good reason. So anyone who doesn’t just laugh at it believes anything they hear.

      Thank you very much. 😀

  2. Nice post! So great to see someone else interested in Ekman’s work! I became FACS certified a year and a half ago and it absolutely changed the way I experience the world. You’re right, it just takes practice to begin noticing these things. And once you start, it’s hard to turn it off.

    That’s really cool how you want to be a forensic psychologist. Best of luck! Keep up the great blogging!

    If you ever want to talk about FACS or anything psych or college/grad school related, feel free to email me:

    • Oh! It was wonderful to read your comment! It’s so difficult to find anyone in the blogosphere who truly knows anything about facial expressions of emotion. Thank you so much for your well wishes, and thank you very much for your e-mail address! 😀

      • Sure thing! I know, it is hard to find people interested in this stuff, which is why I was so excited that you were interested too! And yeah, feel free to hit me up whenever 🙂

  3. Have you ever thought about teaching? You have the knack! It’s nice to read info like this in laymans terms!
    I’ve often heard on NCIS and CSI that when a suspect is lying he was looking down and left. It’s all subconscious, right? Unless the person is aware of what they’re doing or and try to counteract. Know what I mean? The smile is very true. I don’t photograph well if told to “smile”. But if I put some emotion into it, I get a better results.
    Excellent post! Looking forward to the next one!

    • Actually, I’ve been thinking about tutoring psychology or offering classes over the Summer, since it appears I also have a knack for explaining these things in person (I recently discovered this). It might be fun 🙂 I’m also thinking about staring a video series so it’s easier for folks to reference to.
      And, you’re correct about eye signals being subconscious – we often exhibit facial expressions and body language signals without paying attention to what the signals may mean. We can manipulate certain messages so we appear friendlier and more confident (politicians hire behavior experts to learn to do just that), but if we hear something we don’t expect, we can’t help it when our guard goes down for a moment and our true emotions are exposed to the world.
      Me too on the smiling bit! I inherited my mother’s lower cheeks, so if I try to fake smile, I nearly look like a chipmunk storing nuts for Winter…
      Thank you so much for your encouragement! 😀

      • LOL!!!
        Tutoring may be a good way to get some extra money for the college trip! Plus it looks good on a resume! And YouTube videos would be awesome!
        Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  4. This is a fascinating post. I guess I’ve never consciously keyed in on body language as much as figures of speech. By that, I mean, things like politicians or businessmen using passive voice in a way that indicates that they have screwed up but are not going to admit it: “Mistakes were made,” etc.

    I’ll have to watch for this now. Excellent illustrations to the points you made.

  5. Pingback: Is NLP manipulation, mind control or brainwashing? | GATEHOUSE THIRTEEN

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  8. i will definitely give it a try……….i dont know i have a tendency of looking into a person’s lips while he/she speak (which is awkward when talking with a girl and think it i am looking somewhere else).

    anyway…….i kept laughing for a while reading the ‘Must…steal…suit…and hair product…” line……. :]

    you definitely got another fervent follower today

  9. Pingback: Feel Those Feelings and Develop Emotional Intelligence. | Self Improvement, Faith, & Confidence.

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