Have you ever had one of those strange out-of-body moments during a performance, where you suddenly realize where you are, what you’re doing, and you kind of marvel at it all? Where you see your fingers flying around all over the place, and think to yourself “Gee, look at my fingers go. They’re moving awfully fast. Hmm…are they going to be able to keep that up?”

Or maybe you’ve had one of those days when eyes start wandering into the audience, and as your fingers continue to chug along on autopilot, you suddenly lock eyes with some random person, which sort of freaks you out (and is probably really weird for them too).

As a young kid, I noticed that some musicians performed with their eyes closed. At least part of the time, anyway. And I often wondered why they did this. Was it mostly an aesthetic thing? To communicate how engaged they were with the music? Or did it have some sort of functional performance benefit?

I experimented with it a bit over the years, and found that there were certainly times when it felt like playing with eyes closed was helpful. But then there times when it felt a little weird and somewhat disconcerting.

So what does the research say? Is there any performance benefit to performing with your eyes closed? Or is it better to just keep your eyes open?

Where do peoples’ eyes go?

I’m not aware of any studies which address this question directly, but a series of studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin provide some interesting clues.

In one study, they took 19 students, and asked them 30 recall questions on 10 different topics. In each topic area, one question was geared towards short-term recall, another towards intermediate recall, and the third towards long-term recall. For instance, “Name a current professor” (short), “Name a professor from a semester ago” (intermediate), and “Name a professor from 2 semesters ago” (long).

Participants read each question from an index card, and were given 10 seconds to provide an answer.

Meanwhile, the experimenter kept an eye on the participant and observed whether they looked away from the experimenter or the question card towards the floor, wall, ceiling, etc. Or if they closed or covered their eyes.

Probability of looking away

The researchers found that the more difficult the question, the more often participants looked away or closed their eyes.

When answering short-term questions, they averted their gaze 37% of the time. For intermediate questions, 40% of the time. And for long-term recall, 53% of the time.

In essence, it seem like the more brainpower is required to answer a question, the more likely people are to look away or close their eyes. Which is pretty interesting, but doesn’t answer the question of whether there’s any performance benefit from doing so.

So they conducted another study to dig a little deeper.

Eyes closed vs. nose

In a follow-up study, 29 participants were asked to answer 30 general knowledge questions, and 30 simple math questions. Like the previous study, a third of the questions were easy, another third were moderate, and a third difficult.

But in this study, participants were given specific instructions about what to do with their eyes. On half of the questions, they were asked to think about the answer/solve the math problem with their eyes closed. On the other half, they were asked to think/problem-solve while looking at the experimenter’s nose.

A performance benefit

As predicted, performance seemed to be enhanced by thinking with eyes closed, as in both the general knowledge questions and math problems, participants got a higher percentage correct when they did their thinking with their eyes closed.

From Glenberg, A., Schroeder, J. and Robertson, D. (1998). Averting the gaze disengages the environment and facilitates remembering. Memory & Cognition, 26(4), pp.651-658.

Why?

Research in this area suggests that cognitive performance takes a hit when we are looking at distracting, task-irrelevant visual stimuli, because some of our brainpower is diverted to the task of suppressing or ignoring what we’re looking at.

Normally, it’s pretty important that we be tuned into our surroundings. That we notice the smell of smoke (cookies burning in the oven), be aware of cars running red lights (instead of texting while crossing the street), or recognize that strange silence which often signifies that the dog is up to some sort of mischief (taking dirty clothes out of the hamper to make a bed for himself).

But when it comes to performing, much of what’s in our immediate environment is actually not relevant to the task at hand (unless we’re talking about an orchestral performance, of course, in which case your conductor might beg to differ). So when we engage visually with the audience, puzzle over the meaning of the piece of tape on the floor in front of us, or marvel at how our hands are moving across the keyboard, this diverts precious resources from creating and shaping the phrase we are actually playing at the moment, potentially leading to a performance that’s slightly less awesome than it could have been.

Takeaways

Based on the type of tasks involved, these studies are most directly applicable to classroom tests, and suggest that we can might be able to do better on challenging exams if we do some of our thinking with our eyes closed.

And while it’s not clear from these studies if the results would necessarily transfer to motor skill performance, it does seem like it might be relevant. That playing with eyes closed might potentially help with memory. And at the very least, help us stay more focused on our performance, and be less prone to being distracted by the audience, audition committee, or random details about the hall.

But I’m curious about your experience – what are your thoughts on the eyes open vs. eyes closed issue? Do you find one more helpful than the other? Does it matter to you whether the performer plays with eyes open or closed when you’re watching from the audience?

And while we’re at it, I thought it might be fun to do a quick poll too:

Do You Perform With Your Eyes Open? Or Closed?

  • Eyes mostly shut...helps me stay in my own little world. (11%, 85 Votes)
  • Sometimes open. Sometimes closed. (57%, 450 Votes)
  • Eyes wide open...not sure I even blink. (32%, 257 Votes)

Total Voters: 792

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