Eye contact is a powerful tool of social influence. A direct, confident gaze can anchor wavering investors, unsettle competitors and inspire cynics to believe in you and your product.

As hierarchical leadership structures disintegrate into flat, collaborative leadership styles that emphasize unremitting group-wide communication and open plan offices, it is harder than ever to avoid eye contact. 

If you're an entrepreneur working on creative ideas, this might not work entirely in your favor.

Your brain withdraws into its memory cave when it gets creative.

When your brain tries to generate a new idea, it rearranges or re-interprets fragments of information you already carry in your memory.

To do this, it detaches your attention from the outside world and wanders through your memory's inventory, along "internal processing" pathways in the recesses of your mind. 

EEG studies show how the brain shuts down visual distractions in the moments before a creative breakthrough. Your eyes stay closed for longer when you blink, which reduces incoming visual information that might distract your thought process.

As your brain sifts through the information held in your memory, it follows potential threads that might lead to a breakthrough.

If something distracts your attention, the thread is lost.

When you look into someone's eyes, you hold each other's attention captive.

Direct gaze signals the intent to interact.

In the wild, this intent often signals danger, so years of evolution have programed our brains to drop everything and be on high alert the instant someone locks their eyes with ours. 

As a result, we react to eye contact by slowing the heart down in anticipation and heightening alertness. Perception of time is distorted as the brain tries to predict what will happen next. 

If you're immersed in deep creative thought and are on the cusp of a brilliant breakthrough, engaging in eye contact at that moment can kill your moment of insight. 

Your mind detaches from the outside world to focus its attention inwards as it engages in creative thinking. Eye contact stalls this process by drawing your attention back outwards. 

Frequent eye contact is inevitable in an open plan office that lacks cubicles or enclosures for privacy and this can be a particular challenge for creative thinkers.

While some employees might develop strategies such as looking away or defocusing the eyes as they think, others may struggle in such an environment. 

  • If you're a manager: Encourage a seating plan where team members working on the creative aspects of a project sit at work stations that face a wall or a window rather than at stations that face other people in the office.  Assign a designated private area for creative thinking, should employees need more privacy. 
  • If you're a creative worker: Remember Medusa, the Greek mythological snake-headed woman. All who looked into her eyes got turned into stone. When you're lost in creative thought, think of everyone around you as Medusa. If you don't want your brilliant, burgeoning ideas to turn into stone,  don't look into anyone's eyes.

Published on: Oct 11, 2018