I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?
As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.
They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.
The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.
This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”
The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.
The eyes have it!