Thursday, 6 February 2014

Close your Eyes and Remember: Folk Myth or Scientific Fact?

“Close your eyes and remember” is likely a phrase that you have heard before. To some, closing your eyes to remember information or events may be considered intuitive, while to others, the idea may simply resemble some mythical folk statement that could not possibly be true. Either way, you have hopefully started to wonder yourself whether or not eye-closure really can benefit your memory, and if it can, why such a phenomenon occurs. With that in mind, let’s get to what the scientific literature has to say on the subject.

Starting with a general overview, it is often found that eye-closure can indeed benefit a person’s ability to remember both visual and auditory details of events. As to why what is termed the “eye-closure effect” occurs, scientists usually employ what is known as the cognitive load hypothesis in their explanation. The cognitive load hypothesis, which is grounded in Glenberg’s (1997) account of embedded cognition, says that eye-closure helps improve memory by freeing cognitive resources that normally would have been used to monitor the environment (Vredevelt et al, 2011). Put simply; when you close your eyes, your brain is receiving less incoming information, and thus is able to devote more of its processing capabilities towards other tasks, which in this case would be memory. Those with pessimistic views of the eye-closure effect however, would state (after reading the literature) that these findings were only obtained in lab settings, and thus are not generalizable to read world scenarios. Luckily enough, recent research at the University of York tackles just this issue.

            In this study, Vredevelt and Penrod (2013) looked at whether memory for a forensically relevant live event was influenced by both eye-closure condition (i.e. eyes open or closed) and location (i.e. inside or outside) at the time of the subsequent interview about the event. In the experiment, 96 students witnessed a staged verbal altercation between two confederates. After witnessing this altercation, participants were interviewed about the events they just witnessed in one of two locations: the sidewalk next to a busy street, or inside a quiet corridor. The interview consisted of both a free recall (i.e. tell me everything you remember about the event) and a cued recall (i.e. “what did the male say” or “who started the argument”) questions. During the interview, the participants were instructed to either keep their eyes open or to keep their eyes closed.

            For free recall conditions, it was found that overall, those who closed their eyes (in comparison to those who kept their eyes open) reported more correct and detailed information in both visual and auditory modalities. Furthermore, these increases in recall were not accompanied by decreases in overall testimonial accuracy (i.e., they did not report more correct answers because they gave more responses, correct or incorrect, in general). One caveat of these findings however, was that these benefits were only significant in the quieter, inside interview condition (vs. the noisier outside viewing condition). For the cued recall condition, it was found that participants who closed their eyes reported more detailed information with regards to only the visual aspects of the witnessed event, an improvement that was again accompanied by no decreases in overall testimonial accuracy.

Close your eyes, you may not have to remember this moment because of it.
            So what do these findings mean for you? For starters, it means that closing your eyes can benefit your memory in real world conditions (especially in free recall). Furthermore, it also suggests that if you are going to try to benefit from closing your eyes to remember, you should try to do so in a quiet, less busy environment (which is consistent with the cognitive load hypothesis, as noisy environment would only create more things for your brain to process). Regarding the practical uses of these findings, a readily apparent application could be police interview strategies. Asking witnesses to close their eyes while they try to freely recall an event is something simple. It requires no complex training and takes no more time than any current measures, yet despite this simplicity, it has the potential to increase both how much the witness recalls, and the detail to which the witness can go into. As far as how this information can benefit you in your daily life, just think of how much frustration you go through when, for example, you lose your keys/phone/other important object. Instead of taking 15 minutes to reacquaint yourself with anxiety, you might consider taking a minute or two of your time to close your eyes and retrace your steps, as it may help you keep your cool and your keys. At the end of the day, the research in this area goes to show that sometimes old sayings can indeed have some merit, and regardless of whether or not you are fully convinced, at least you have another topic to talk about to intrigue your relatives.

-Rylan Waring

Glenberg, A. M. (1997). What memory is for. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 1–55.           doi:10.1017/S0140525X97000010

Vredeveldt, A., Hitch, G.J., & Baddeley, A.D. (2011). Eyeclosure helps memory by reducing cognitive load and enhancing visualisation. Memory & Cognition, 39, 1253-1263. doi:  10.3758/s13421-011-0098-8.

Vredeveldt, A., & Penrod, S, D. (2013). Eye-closure improves memory for a witnessed event    under naturalistic conditions. Psychology, Crime & Law, 19 (10), 893-905

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