Recently, I went to see the horror movie, The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015) and noticed the whites under the iris of the young daughter, Thomasin (Anja Taylor-Joy) were used by director, Robert Eggers to show an impending danger.
A subtle device, yet very effective.
Seeing the whites under her eyes left me feeling anxious, and I could feel that bad things were to come for this young girl.
The white sclera showing under or over the iris is known as the three whites of the eye: sanpakugan also known as sanpaku eyes.
As noted in Timothy Spearman’s article, ‘The Psychopath: Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’1, there are two types of sanpaku eyes: the yin sanpaku, where the white shows below the iris and the yang sanpaku, where the white shows above.
Basically, the theory is if a person is showing the sclera below their eyes, as in the case of Thomasin, the danger is yin, and therefore coming from outside.
A person with yin sanpaku eyes is, ‘likely to place himself or herself in dangerous or threatening situations unwittingly and may be in mortal peril.’
If the sclera is showing above the iris, this is yang sanpaku. ‘In this case, the iris sinks downward toward the bottom eyelid. This reveals a dangerous or violent character.’
Spearman proposes, ‘a damaged amygdala may influence the position and aspect of the eye, possibly directing the iris to sink down in the lower quadrant of the eye when the amygdala either shrinks or swells in size due to trauma, depression and other emotional stimuli.’
As Fudge, et al (Considering the Role of the Amygdala in Psychotic Illness: A Clinicopathological Correlation, 1998)2 states, ‘It is generally accepted that the amygdala plays a role in attaching emotional significance to environmental stimuli’.
This means that a dysfunction of the amygdala may affect the emotional significance given to external cues and therefore the person may lack empathy.
Adolphs, et al3 reported a case of an adult patient with bilateral amygdala lesions, ‘… was unable to recognize fear among facial expression.’
Why is the use of sanpaku eyes in cinema such a successful device?
If a character is unable to recognise fear and lacks empathy, we’re talking about a psychopath – check out the character Dr Hannibal Lecter below.
What can cause amygdala dysfunction?
Cohen et al (Early-life stress has persistent effects on amygdala function and development in mice and humans)4, states ‘their study provides evidence of early and persistent alterations in anxious behaviour and amygdala function following the early-life stress of disorganized parental care.’
So a character with sanpaku eyes can be shown to have had a traumatic upbringing without actually including the characters childhood as part of the narrative.
A damaged amygdala can certainly affect a person’s personality and emotions or lack of emotional response, and there’s no denying the effect sanpaku eyes have on an audience watching a film: The feeling of impending doom for a character or the warning of hidden evil in another.
But whether there’s scientific merit for sanpaku eyes is certainly up for debate.
The shift in the iris due to a change in the amygdala could be a stretch (a downward shift known as sunset eyes in an infant can be caused by hydrocephalus which is a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain). However, the use of sanpaku eyes in cinema is a clever devise as the reaction feels innate. The feeling that something is wrong.
Hard to miss the evil emanating from the eyes of the witch from Disney’s, Cinderella. And going by the theory mentioned above, the witch wouldn’t see our fear, all she’d see is prey.
- Spearman, T (2011) The Psychopath: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? shakesaspear.com
- Fudge et al. (1998) Considering the Role of the Amygdala in Psychotic Illness: A Clinicopathological Correlation. J Neuropsychiatry 10(4):383-394
- Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio H, et al (1994) Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala. Nature 372:669-672
- Malter Cohen et al. (2013) Early-life stress has persistent effects on amygdala function and development in mice and humans. PNAS 110(45): 18274-18278.