By Carrie Heeter, PhD, February 17, 2014
New neuroimaging research documents dramatic effects of an embedded brain controlling device: our eyes.
Neuroscientists have been examining what parts of the brain are activated when eyes are open (EO) compared to brain activation when eyes are closed (EC). It turns out that opening your eyes, even in a totally dark room, instantly changes how your brain operates.
People who meditate experience this shift when they begin a meditation by sitting comfortably and closing their eyes. Other forms of meditation, such as walking meditations, occur with eyes open. All of us have convenient access to eyes we can experiment with opening and closing while we reading this blog about the latest research.
Closing the eyes animates our somatosensory systems including touch, proprioception (vibration and position), pain and temperature (Jao et al., 2013). Closing the eyes also activates olfaction (smell) and gustatory systems (taste), even in the absence of olfactory or gustatory stimuli (Wiesmann et al. 2006).
Closing the eyes activates our interoception network (used for processing the internal state) that includes imagination and memory (Xu et al., 2014). But activated interoception comes at a cost. Closing the eyes suppresses our exteroception network.
Opening the eyes activates our exteroception network (used for processing the external world). Specifically, opening the eyes activates our ocular motor networks used to control the position, gaze, focus and other activities of the eye (Marx et al. 2003). Attention and alertness are activated to support orienting to visual locations. Physiological arousal is activated to prepare our bodies to react to the outside world.
Opening the eyes is associated with stronger “local efficiency” in specific regions of the brain and an increase in specialized information processing. But this comes at a cost. Opening the eyes suppresses interoception. Opening the eyes reduces the synchronicity, global efficiency and integrated connections across visual, somatic and auditory sensory systems (Xu et al, 2014; Jao et al. 2013). Opening the eyes suppresses imagination, memory, and perception of internal states.
These alternating patterns of brain activation occur whether we open our eyes in darkness or in light. In other words, whether or not we can see anything, opening the eyes activates certain brain networks and deactivates others and closing the eyes has the opposite effect (Marx et al. 2003; Jao et al., 2013; Xu et al, 2014). These effects of eye opening and closing were even found in studies among blind people, with somewhat smaller but consistent effects (Hufner, 2009). Opening and closing the eyes changes the brain.
Clearly we are still able to use imagination and perceive our internal state with eyes open. We are still able to focus attention on external stimuli with eyes closed. But when we do so, we are working against the natural strengths of our activated brain network. We are probably less effective than we would be if we matched the state of our eyes (open or closed) to the activity.
I hope I have infected you with a curiosity about your dual information processing networks. Perhaps like me, you will spend parts of the rest of today intentionally making the dynamic switch and noticing your experience with eyes closed or eyes open in different situations and conditions.
Maybe we should make more conscious use of our powerful built in mind control devices. Do we go through life with eyes open too much of the time? Is it helpful to close eyes while listening, to integrate the ideas or our emotional reactions to the speaker and what they are saying? Is the polite thing to do at a dinner party to close ones’ eyes and deeply taste the food? Do some people get their best ideas in the shower because of the alternating periods of eyes open and eyes closed?
Returning to this blog’s themes of technology and meditation, should media experiences be designed for eyes constantly open? I always close my eyes during suspenseful parts of movies. Have I been making them scarier for myself by amplifying my internal sensations of fear? Or does fear thrive with eyes open?
Is it the best design for meditation games to expect players to watch and interact with the screen the whole time? Or should eyes be closed the entire time? What are the effects of periods of eyes closed be interspersed with periods of eyes open? Are there benefits to mode-shifting? How might experience designers best incorporate consciously controlled exteroception and interoception?
Hüfner K, Stephan T, Flanagin VL, Deutschländer A, Stein A, Kalla R, Dera T, Fesl G, Jahn K, Strupp M, Brandt T. (2009). Differential effects of eyes open or closed in darkness on brain activation patterns in blind subjects. Neuroscience Letters, Nov 27 466(1):30-4.
Jao T, Vértes PE, Alexander-Bloch AF, Tang IN, Yu YC, Chen JH, Bullmore ET. (2013). Volitional eyes opening perturbs brain dynamics and functional connectivity regardless of light input. Neuroimage, Apr 1;69:21-34
Marx E, Stephan T, Nolte A, Deutschländer A, Seelos KC, Dieterich M, Brandt T. (2003). Eye closure in darkness animates sensory systems. Neuroimage, Jul;19(3):924-34.
Marx E, Deutschländer A, Stephan T, Dieterich M, Wiesmann M, Brandt T. (2004). Eyes open and eyes closed as rest conditions: impact on brain activation patterns. Neuroimage, Apr;21(4):1818-24.
Pengfei Xu, Ruiwang Huang, Jinhui Wang, Nicholas T. Van Dam, Teng Xie, Zhangye Dong, Chunping Chen, Ruolei Gu, Yu-Feng Zang, Yong He, Jin Fan, Yue-jia Luo (2014). Different topological organization of human brain functional networks with eyes open versus eyes closed. NeuroImage, Volume 90, 15 April Pages 246-255.
Wiesmann M, Kopietz R, Albrecht J, Linn J, Reime U, Kara E, Pollatos O, Sakar V, Anzinger A, Fesl G, Brückmann H, Kobal G, Stephan T. (2006). Eye closure in darkness animates olfactory and gustatory cortical areas. Neuroimage, Aug 1;32(1):293-300.
Xu P, Huang R, Wang J, Van Dam NT, Xie T, Dong Z, Chen C, Gu R, Zang YF, He Y, Fan J, Luo YJ. (2014). Different topological organization of human brain functional networks with eyes open versus eyes closed. Neuroimage, Jan 13; 90C:246-255.