Orlando’s first eye contact experiment promotes human connection

Where has human connection gone?

That was the question The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment explored Saturday as thousands of strangers in more than 70 countries united to participate in a synchronized minute of uninterrupted eye contact.  

The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment, which was first created by The Liberators International in 2015, came to Orlando for the first time this year.

More than 100 people gathered at Lake Eola in downtown Orlando at 5 p.m. to promote peace, unity and human connectivity through a public eye contact demonstration.

The Liberators International, founded by Peter Sharp and based out of Perth, Australia, is a nonprofit organization and global network of 15 individuals seeking to create positive experiences and make the world a more harmonious place, according to its website.

Allie Vaknin, 21, a UCF senior studying human communication and sociology, said she attended the free event to collect data for her undergraduate thesis on the effects of extended eye contact.

She was inspired to research the topic after her own eye contact experience during an international internship in Jerusalem, Israel, last summer, she said.

“I think eye contact as an aspect of nonverbal communication is so powerful,” Vaknin said. “It really gives us so much social information, and it communicates so much more than words sometimes do.”

Light rain and gray skies didn’t deter the crowd as they mingled with one another on a grassy field, deciding what stranger to do the experiment with. A team of 15 volunteers tied pieces of blue ribbon around attendees’ wrists as a physical demonstration of unity.

Johnna Hauck, a 21-year-old senior at UCF studying elementary education, and Jimmy Ossa, 23, a 2017 UCF alumnus with a degree in computer engineering, went into the experiment with zero expectations or preconceived notions, they said.

As the two scanned the crowd for a partner, they locked eyes and chose each other.

Sitting on the grass inside of blue and silver striped hula hoops, they talked briefly about their time at UCF; the commonality was comforting, they said.

The ringing of a triangle signaled 5:15 p.m. It was time for the experiment to begin.

Ossa and Hauck were nervous at first; it was their first time trying anything like this, they said. Ossa’s mind was blank during the experiment as he wanted the moment to be uninterrupted, he said.

“I think there was just a point where I just kind of accepted it. Someone’s looking at me, and I’m looking at them,” Ossa said.

Hauck’s mind was racing as she zeroed in on one of Ossa’s brown eyes, and the rest of the world became blurry, she said.

She thought about his time at UCF and how he dealt with exams, she hoped he was loved and that he loved others. Her thoughts were not distractions, she said, but were used to facilitate a stronger sense of understanding and connection.

Emotions were high at the end of the minute. Some pairs hugged, others cried.

Hauck and Ossa felt happy and emotional after the experiment and would definitely attend again, they said.

After the experiment, everyone joined hands and formed a large circle.

Event organizers Tisse Mallon, 36, founder of the Elar Institute, an Orlando-based company that advocates self expression through workshops and social projects; Mary Thompson Hunt, 59, an actress and radio talk show host; and Love Schroder, 36, founder of The Highly Blessed Collective, a Winter Park-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable living and farming incentives to families in South America and the Caribbean, quickly gathered in the middle.

The three thanked everyone, encouraging them to continue engaging in eye contact experiments with new partners.

The trio was able to host the event at Lake Eola free of charge as long as no tables or large signage was set up, Mallon said.

Mallon did most of the organizing for the event, which largely consisted of promoting it via social media; although she would have never gotten involved if it weren’t for Thompson Hunt and Schrouder, she said.

Mallon organized many small events in the past, but has never had a response comparable to that of the eye contact experiment, she said.

“What this has shown me is that this message of presence and peace and connection is one that people are really hungry for,” Mallon said. “That’s what is so beautiful.”

The eye contact experiment was meant to be a one-time event, but after the 2015 eye contact experiment event video became wildly popular online, The Liberators knew there was more to it, Kathleen Mistele, the North American Coordinator for The Liberators International, said.

Each year, the event has grown in popularity, and the Liberators International are expanding their global team further with a focus on outreach, fundraising and social media to make the eye contact experiment an annual event.

In 2015, there were 150 participating cities. In 2016, there were 180. This year there were 350 confirmed cities participating worldwide, Mistele, 49, said.

The Liberators would like every single country to participate, she added.

“In order to have peace we have to be able to expand beyond countries, beyond borders,” Mallon said.