Cicero, Shakespeare and John Milton certainly thought so, and now scientists may have the evidence to prove it.
The idea that the eyes are the windows to the soul is a persistent meme. William Shakespeare referred often to the secrets and emotions that could be seen through the eye. In his King John, Pembroke says,
“The image of a wicked heinous fault
Lives in his eye: that close aspect of his
Does show the mood of a much troubled breast.”
And in The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio says of Portia,
“Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages”
The idea that the eyes reveal our innermost emotions dominates art and literature through the ages. The eyes are important on a cultural level too, even today. Whilst organ donation figures are growing all the time, there is a massive shortage of corneas. That is largely down to a mass reluctance to donate a part of us that we consider to be closely tied to our being, rather than just a body part. On tick box donation forms, the most commonly refused body part is the eye, with the heart a close second.
A study in 2007 by Mats Larsson, a graduate behavioral scientist from the Swedish Orebro University, looked at the crypts and contraction furrows of the irises of 428 participants. The irises were photographed at close range and analyzed in conjunction with a personality questionnaire. The results were startling. The study showed a strong correlation between the structure of the iris and corresponding personality traits. Those with more crypts than furrows were warm, tender and trusting. Those with more furrows tended to be neurotic, more impulsive and susceptible to cravings. Since these traits of the iris are genetic, it suggests that those personality traits have a strong genetic link too and that the old aphorism about the eyes being the window of the soul is more than simply creative metaphor.
Earlier scientific studies suggest similar links. For example, in 1965, Cattell observed differing cognitive styles between blue and brown eyed subjects. Successive studies have found, and failed to find, links between eye color and personality traits. Interestingly, some of these studies showed that these links were only significant in children up to the age of nine. That suggests that environmental factors gradually eroded the influence of genetics on social characteristics.
PAX6, a gene, is linked to the development of the iris and a part of the brain in the frontal lobe. A mutation of this gene has been linked to behavioral issues. Those include social communication and empathy. It could even be linked to Autism.
Adam Anderson is a professor of human development at Cornell University. He and his team believe that the widening and narrowing of eyes is an evolutionary trait, designed to protect us from environmental dangers. It was previously thought to have developed as a means of social communication, or body language. These involuntary emotional responses are visible through the eye and give rise to facial expressions that can be ‘read’ by others. It is likely, they say, that many other emotional responses can be seen through the eyes, hence this idea of seeing straight into the soul.
Without a doubt, our eyes reveal much about who we are and what we think and feel. That the very structure of the eye also reflects our genetic heritage, and our most ingrained personality traits, reinforces what we have always instinctively ‘known’. That the eyes are indeed the window to the soul.