We close our eyes when we are trying to remember a name, answer a difficult question, or in moments of focus, like during meditation or yoga. Many of us also close our eyes while appreciating scent.
Try to imagine the last time you were given flowers. Did you bury your nose in the bouquet, close your eyes, and inhale?So why do we close our eyes? According to cognitive scientist Art Markman, it’s our brain’s way of blocking out visual stimuli. By shutting or averting our eyes, the brain is attempting to remove distractions, tuning out visual “noise” so it can process something important, like recalling someone's name or identifying a particular scent.
“When your eyes are open, those areas of the brain that are involved in vision are getting input from the eyes, and this input keeps those areas busy,” Markman writes in Psychology Today. “Consequently, when you have to answer a difficult question or think about some visual memory from the past you either close your eyes or look upward to help you disengage from the world.”
Interestingly, scientists have also discovered that closing your eyes can fuel imagination and creativity. It could even cause inspiration to strike, according to researchers at Milano-Bicocca University, who investigated the relationship between creativity and problem-solving by recording eye movements and blinks.
“Creative ideas seem often to appear when we close our eyes, stare at a blank wall, or gaze out of a window – all signs of shutting out distractions and turning attention inward,” the researchers noted in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
As well as helping our brain to do its thing, closing our eyes can also heighten our awareness of other senses. It's why during neurological examinations – particularly cranial nerve examinations to diagnose smell and taste disorders like anosmia – patients are often asked to identify different odors with their eyes closed.
Then there’s the example of American author Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind, yet so acutely aware of her sense of smell, she could even detect the type of building she was passing. Keller's sense of smell was so vivid, she described it as “a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”
So the next time you’re trying to recall a memory, think creatively or enhance your sense of smell, go ahead and close your eyes.
It might just help you focus – or smell the roses a little better.