Do we think differently with our eyes closed or closed? Apparently we do. And it is not just a simple difference like the brain having more to do when it is processing vision compared to when it is not receiving visual input. There is a difference in how we react to music with our eyes closed and in a dark room with our eyes open. A recent paper by Garuso and Gino elaborates on this phenomenon (pdf). Here is the abstract:
Four experiments demonstrate that closing one’s eyes affects ethical judgment and behavior because it induces people to mentally simulate events more extensively. People who considered situations with their eyes closed rather than open judged immoral behaviors as more unethical and moral behaviors as more ethical. In addition, considering potential decisions with closed eyes decreased stated intentions to behave ethically and actual self- interested behavior. This relationship was mediated by the more extensive mental simulation that occurred with eyes closed rather than open, which, in turn, intensified emotional reactions to the ethical situation. We discuss the implications of these findings for moral psychology and ethical decision making.
So we can imagine much more vividly with our eyes closed and this leads to more emotional involvement and finally to more ethical behaviour.
What does this say about consciousness? Perhaps we need to use the visual cortex in order to have more extensive mental simulations. Our full consciousness can then be used for the imagined scene. Perhaps the act of closing the eyes, in effect, gives permission to use the facilities of the visual cortex for imagining. The cascades of the eyes are somehow coordinated with the rhythm of the gamma waves that accompany consciousness; is this why there is a difference in imagining with the eyes closed? We often close our eyes when we want to concentrate on something, savour something or recall something. Perhaps closing the eyes is a way to strengthen ‘top-down’ control of attention. The cascades of the eyes also have some effect steering attention to the next point in space that will be the center of the visual field. Perhaps closing our eyes make us more viscerally aware and that heightens emotion. Here is Lerner etal’s overview of the eyes-closed state of consciousness:
Brain wise, the closed eyes position is well known by its unique electrophysiological signature of increased alpha rhythm. In a recent resting state study, fMRI and EEG signals were recorded simultaneously while participants intermittently were instructed to close or open their eyes. Using the combined measurements, two alpha rhythms were defined tempo-spatially with relation to the closed eyes position; one on-going and spontaneous distributed in the midline brain regions including the prefrontal cortex (PFC), cingulate cortex and thalamus, and the other stimulated by shift in eyes position from open to closed distributed in the fronto-temporal cortical regions. These data point to the possibility that closing the eyes indeed characterizes a specific brain state that can be affected by the individual’s mental set. Accordingly, the current study presumes that eyes closed position represents a well defined mental set by which perceived emotionality can be modulated, thus probing its neural respect.
They recorded substantial differences in amygdala activity. This is a very intriguing area of research.
Caruso, E., & Gino, F. (2011). Blind ethics: Closing one’s eyes polarizes moral judgments and discourages dishonest behavior Cognition, 118 (2), 280-285 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.008
Lerner, Y., Papo, D., Zhdanov, A., Belozersky, L., & Hendler, T. (2009). Eyes Wide Shut: Amygdala Mediates Eyes-Closed Effect on Emotional Experience with Music PLoS ONE, 4 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006230