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The power of the adoring gaze

Bruce Conn
Bruce Conn

Neuroscientists have come up with a new discovery; they say we have brain cells called mirror neurons. I learned about this in a TED talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran. He shares how this development in our thinking led to complex social behaviors.

These are the brain cells that allow us to see a person do a thing and then copy the motion ourselves. We see someone reach for an apple or throw a ball and these neurons kick in, essentially teaching us to perform the same action. These neurons work as if they are adopting the other person’s point of view.

Stick with me, because this becomes important stuff in our coupling. But I need to back track one more time.

Psychologists have long talked about the adoring gaze. Imagine a new mother holding an infant. With the infant cradled in her forearms, head held in her hands, they face each other directly. They both smile and coo, looking deeply into each other’s eyes. Believe it or not, really important stuff is happening here.

Early attachment is formed in these moments and the child’s brain literally develops software that says, “I am loved, I am lovable and I can love.” Well, maybe not literally in the moment but the foundation is laid for those feelings and thoughts. It’s dramatic stuff, important stuff.

So let’s add the mirror neurons back in. Maybe you didn’t get much of the adoring gaze early on. In Attachment Theory, this is going to be hard to overcome. But with the idea of mirror neurons, we have the capacity to be in a relationship where we can love and be loved.

Loving is not the hard part; overcoming fear is the hard part. We fear being abandoned or being overwhelmed and consumed. But if we can work a little harder on the love side of the equation, trust just a little and set aside fear, then we can see that the other loves us. They are doing loving things.

In mirror neuron language, we can imitate and emulate those behaviors. We can re-create the beautifully simple experience of the adoring gaze.

This became famous a few years ago when couples were challenged to spend uninterrupted periods looking deeply into one another’s eyes. If this is guided by hopeful, caring thoughts, then an increase in closeness was experienced.

You can read about this online under the topics of “36 questions to fall in love” or “4 minute stare.”

Maybe all this explains the “blink game” we played in high school!

Jason Mraz has a great lyric in his song “I won’t give up”: “When I look into your eyes, it’s like watching the night sky, or a beautiful sunrise. Well, there’s so much they hold.”

Staring into your partner’s eyes can be one of the most intimidating and exhilarating things you can do. But this time, leave out the competitive blink game and enjoy the adoring gaze.

Bruce Conn is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and works with individuals and couples. Contact him at or call 478-742-1464.