Would sustained eye contact give us both a natural high?
On Thanksgiving Day, my father and I picked a room, dimmed the lights and stared at each other for 10 minutes straight. This was not my induction into a cult. It was not some creepy holiday ritual for us, nor was it the way my family resolves arguments.
I was doing this for the ultimate natural high. I had read the results of a recent study by Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo that such a stare can induce “dissociative symptoms, dysmorphic face perceptions and hallucination-like strange-face apparitions.” I wanted to trip by looking into my dad’s eyeballs.
Caputo’s study was conducted with 20 “healthy young individuals” staring at each other “at low illumination” for 10 minutes. At the end of the experiment, subjects reported some or all of the following experiences: seeing deformed facial traits in their partners; seeing faces other than their partners’, especially the faces of their relatives; seeing monsters; seeing their own faces; changes in the visual intensity of colors; hearing sounds quieter or louder than normal; becoming spaced out; and, finally, distortions in their experience of time (namely, that it seemed to drag).
Collectively, the study refers to these as “dissociative symptoms,” which is a fancy way of saying the study’s participants experienced some form of break with reality. A break with reality sounded fantastic to me. I knew I’d see my dad over Thanksgiving, and I thought he would be the perfect partner. We have three decades of history to distort and hallucinate, and perhaps our experience together would shed light on the historically fraught relationship between fathers and sons.
When I told the rest of my family that I had chosen my dad for this experiment, they laughed. “Good luck getting him to sit still and focus for that long,” they said. My dad is a highly intelligent, abstract-thinking man with a demanding job as an oncologist. When I was young, he made a career change, going back to school to become a doctor. Med school took him away from the family for extended periods of time. Though he’s no longer physically absent, he’s still known among our family for his occasional absent-mindedness in conversation with us. He has a capacity to go on auto-pilot sometimes, say, at the dinner table?—?or in small gatherings. It’s not that he isn’t listening. He just has multiple things going on behind his eyes at once. And I was going to see all of them.
After one false start that quickly devolved into awkward laughing, we focused up and got to the work of finally seeing each other. Then it was over. If there was any time distortion, it was the opposite of what Caputo’s participants experienced. Ten minutes felt like two.
So what did we see? Did we hallucinate new colors, see our faces reflected back to us or discover the monsters inside each other? In a word, no. In two words, absolutely not. Neither of us experienced the visual hallucinations for which I had so eagerly hoped. As my dad said to me afterward, “I did not see anything. I did find myself in that sort of dazed, in-and-out thing. I was trying to make sure I was looking in your eye, not dazing into your eye. I would say 80% of the time I was attentive, 20% of the time thinking in the far distance.”
We both experienced meditative rather than dissociative states with our eyes open. As any meditator knows, you can’t keep thoughts from entering your mind during meditation, and it’s when Dad and I talked about the content of our thoughts during the experiment that things got interesting.
He told me, “I felt there was one point, when I looked into your right eye, when I saw something deeper. I don’t know. I saw your personality. Your body wasn’t there. You weren’t there. I just felt like: you. Your personality was there, and it seemed to be very caring and loving and kind. That’s not something that I’ve always seen from you externally.”
Now we were getting somewhere! I too saw something deeper in his eyes. Because of the way the light fell from the window, one half of his face was darker than the other. In the dark half, I felt I saw him at the oldest he will ever be, and in the light half, I saw his younger self.
Overall, I got two messages from his eyes, both repetitions of two-word phrases. The first was just, “I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m tired,” which is not an uncommon refrain for an oncologist who has to see patients and run a practice. The second refrain was deeper. At one point, I thought I saw his eyes say, “I’m sorry.” It turns out I might have been onto something.
Among my dad’s dazed reveries were memories of my childhood: “I was transported back. I thought of you as a very young kid.” He thought of “conversations that I had with you then. I don’t remember them in particular,” but when I told him about the apology I saw in his eyes, he recognized, “There were parts of me saying I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you at the same time that I was gone and made this change of tack. The whole ship moved, and it had to go where I was going.”
The apology wasn’t necessary, but I did appreciate it. A lot of time has passed since my dad’s career change, and in truth, I admire him for it. Through it, he provided me with an example of not being complacent and of the tough decisions and lean times involved in pursuing one’s dreams. However, it never hurts for a parent to admit their imperfection. It brings them down to earth and closer to you.
When I asked Dad if he felt any similarly deep messages coming from me during our experiment, he said, “No. I felt like everything was open. I didn’t feel like things were closed.”
We may not have hallucinated, but somehow, our replication of Caputo’s study did bring us closer together, even if only for those 10 minutes. Of course, we probably could have achieved the same effect if we had just done mushrooms. Maybe next Thanksgiving.