Ask somebody a difficult question, and chances are they will either look up at the sky or close their eyes. What is going on there?
Quite a bit of the brain is taken up with understanding what is going on in our sensory world. For example, if you clasp your hands behind your head, most of the area taken up by your hands reflects the amount of the brain that is devoted to making sense of the information coming in through your eyes.
Those same areas of the brain are also involved in visual recollections of things that you have seen in the past. It makes sense that the brain would re-use areas devoted to vision to help in memory for visual information.
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. 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. (Looking up helps, because the ceiling of the room or the sky are often much less visually interesting than what is happening at eye level and below.)
As an example exploring the influence of looking at the world on memory, there was a nice paper in the October, 2011 issue of Memory & Cognition by Annelies Vredeveldt, Graham Hitch, and Alan Baddeley.
In this study, people watched an 8-minute clip of a television show in which a character got shot, stitched up, and then engaged in a fight. After a 5-minute delay, participants were then asked a number of questions about what they saw and heard in the clip.
There were four groups of people in this study. One group answered questions while looking at a blank computer screen that had been shut off. A second group answered questions with their eyes closed. A third group watched a computer screen as nonsense images were shown on it. A fourth group stared at a blank screen, but heard words from an unfamiliar language being spoken as a distraction.
The group that stared at a blank screen and the one in which people closed their eyes answered more of the questions correctly overall than the ones that saw visual distractions or heard words in an unfamiliar language. That finding suggests that people close their eyes in order to avoid any interesting visual input that would interfere with their ability to remember.
A particularly interesting finding of this study was that the group that saw the images had most difficulty answering questions about the show that asked about visual details. The group that heard the foreign words had most difficulty answering questions about auditory details of the show.
In the end, sensory distraction has both a general and a specific component. Any kind of a distraction makes it harder for you to remember things to some degree. In addition, having a visual distraction makes it particularly hard to remember visual details. Having an auditory distraction makes it particularly hard to remember details of things that you heard.
So, the next time you are trying to remember something important, look up, close your eyes, and minimize distraction.
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