Close Your Eyes, Change Your Brain

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I find I close my eyes to “enhance” my other senses. If I’m trying to hear a barely audible voicemail, for example, I often close my eyes. I always assumed that I was merely reducing visual stimuli and hence freeing up my brain to devote more resources to listening.

That might be true, but new research suggests that the reality is more complex. Shutting one’s eyes causes one to actually go into a different state of mind, according to researcher Talma Hendler, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.


Scientists had 15 volunteers listen with their eyes open or closed to music clips with scary “Hitchcock-like, frightening themes,” Hendler said, as well as comparatively emotionally neutral melody-less musical tones.

As expected, the researchers found that closing one’s eyes enhanced the responses the volunteers felt toward the more emotionally charged scary music. Brain scans revealed that activity ramped up in the amygdala, a primary center for emotion in the brain. In turn, the amygdala fired up brain regions linked with vigilance to the environment and regulation of emotion. [From – Scary music? Better keep your eyes open by Charles Q. Choi.]

Darkness Doesn’t Work. The same effects weren’t noted when the subjects were exposed to the same music in complete darkness, indicating that there is a special effect from actually shutting one’s eyelids. Although the researchers did not test uplifting music in addition to the more threatening variety, they expect that a similar effect will be observed, i.e., emotional areas of the brain being activated to a greater degree.

So, next time you are at the symphony, don’t worry that the person next to you might think you are nodding off – go ahead and close your eyes, and see if you enjoy the music more. One wonders, too, whether other audible content might be more emotionally impactful with closed eyes… telephone conversations? Advertising?

What NOT to do in a scary movie. One thing seems certain – closing your eyes when a movie character enters a dark room (accompanied by creepy music, of course) is the wrong move if you are trying to make the movie less scary!

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