Acted Action while thinking?
May 5, 2006 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Any thoughts on why we (humans) roll our eyes back while thinking. We also sometimes crunch our brows. I notice people, including myself, do this when no one is looking at them as well as a signifier during conversation. But it is the action acted out alone that interests me? Could this action actually improve the brains ability to think? What, if any, evolutionary advantage could this offer?
posted by shawnzam to Grab Bag (15 answers total)
 


I noticed you used evolution as a tag. Just because we (still) do it doesn't mean it provides an evolutionary advantage. I'd guess it's completely neutral and has absolutely no effect (+ or -) on the survivability of your genes -- unless you're the type who ponders all decisions and are mauled by a mountain lion while looking up and to the left, thinking about the best way to avoid death by mountain lion.
posted by pmbuko at 7:48 AM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Since the action occurs while alone, for example in front a computer screen trying to remember that url or how to track back to a site, it seems to be to limit the information that goes to the brain. When the eyes are rolled any direction it limits focusing on anything in the field of vision, thus not interupting the train of thought.
posted by shawnzam at 7:53 AM on May 5, 2006


shawnzam: It's pobably not a good idea to make assumptions about what is going on based on a distinction between alone and with other people. For example, our vocal chords move when we are alone and engaged in an internal monologue as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:02 AM on May 5, 2006


Crunching the eyebrows is usually centered around visual concentration on an object. When I do it my vision improves slightly, probably due to warping of the cornea by the muscles used in crunching the eyebrow. I would assume being able to see an object better would confer an evolutionary advantage, but this can be done by anyone without perfect vision, like myself, so I'm not so sure natural selection has been acting on and reinforcing the behaviour biologically in humans. Bonobos sound like they use eye and eyebrow expressions as well so maybe natural selection took care of the biological aspect way up the tree:

"Panbanisha loves to play hide-and-seek, and she wanted to hide with me. We found a secluded spot on the riverbank and huddled together under a bush. Panbanisha kept very quiet and still. When the researcher on the prowl yelled, "Panbanisha, where are you?" she turned to me, her eyes alert and cautious, as if to say "shhh, don't move!" I experienced the same kind of intimate camaraderie I did as a child, hiding out in the woods with my best friend avoiding imaginary foes.

When we stopped to rest and have a snack, Panbanisha began to groom me, combing my hair with her fingers, inspecting the contours of my face. When she discovered a cut on my wrist, she pointed to it, furrowed her brow and made soft "whu" sounds with a doctorly air of concern."

Panbanisha might have learnt that behaviour from watching humans, but she has the muscles to do it and that may indicate it isn't a learned behaviour. In the cut on the wrist example she might be furrowing her brow to mimic pain to convey empathy rather than trying to see the cut better. Altruism in animals is fairly well established even if the causes for it are debated. With the exception of the birds every example on that list is a mammal, and all mammals have a Neo-cortex resting on top of the other brains evolution gifted us. In humans the neocortex is hugely developed and our behaviour reflects the advantages and disadvantages a large neocortex confers. All of this eye stuff probably falls in line with that development since it would be layered on top of the behaviour from the earlier brains. Animals in Translation did a good job of going into this, but not the eye stuff specifically. Neat stuff.
posted by jwells at 8:45 AM on May 5, 2006


I think its a built in mechannism - regardless of who you're with or if you are alone. I agree that it limits the amount of things we can focus on (a ceiling or a cloud isn't much to process visually, whereas a human face or a room full of items might cause reactions or contain other cues that interrupt one's train of thought.)
posted by cbecker333 at 8:50 AM on May 5, 2006


Is it cross-cultural? This might help answer if it is learned or innate.

Squinting improves vision through the pinhole effect, not, AFAIK, through warping the cornea.

It strikes me the crunching/rolling could also be a signal to the other that "I am thinking - don't interrupt" or "I am thinking - I am taking you seriously" and whether the other is actually there or not is irrelevant - we smile when we are alone as well.
posted by Rumple at 9:31 AM on May 5, 2006


unless you're the type who ponders all decisions and are mauled by a mountain lion while looking up and to the left, thinking about the best way to avoid death by mountain lion.

And that, students, would be "irony."
posted by ludwig_van at 9:31 AM on May 5, 2006


I keep a whiteboard up over my left eye, behind my forehead. Doesn't everyone? My humunculus writes the answers there, most of the time.

Really, I wanted to say, thanks jwells, that was fascinating.
posted by Goofyy at 9:32 AM on May 5, 2006


Reading faces
posted by hortense at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2006


As far as the the mountain lion is concerned, it seems that the rolling of the eyes is better option then the closing of the eyes to limit distraction. If the eyes are closed the mountain lion can maul away. But with the rolled eyes there is a chance to get out of the way of the incoming beast.
posted by shawnzam at 12:01 PM on May 5, 2006


I roll my eyes back while thinking because it helps me not be distracted by what or who is in front of me. Looking up helps me to have a clear open mind while trying to focus on the subject matter at hand.
posted by merlin17 at 1:52 PM on May 5, 2006


Already been explained to death I'm sure, but it reminds me that in grade school, my teacher took about an hour to have the class conduct this experiment:

Ask someone a question they will have to think about, like their childhood street address or something that wouldn't be immediately accessible.

If they look up, they're a visual person (85% of the population). They store information visually and are looking up at the screen in their mind find the information. This kind of person would only accept an apology if you looked sorry; the words you use wouldn't be as important as your expressions.

If they look side to side, they're an audio person (10%). They store and process audible information and are playing back the tape which has the information. This kind of person would only accept an apology if you sounded sorry and used the right words.

If they look down, they're a physical person (5%). They store and process information physically and are looking at their body for clues. This kind of person would only accept an apology if you physically showed signs of remorse and offered a handshake or a hug; your appearance and words are secondary.

Anyway I don't know whether it's true or an official study or not, but I was pegged as an audio person and it seems to hold pretty true at the time.
posted by geckoinpdx at 4:23 PM on May 5, 2006


I'll second Rumple in that I picked up the habit of putting my tongue out to concentrate because it helped keep people from interrupting. I've felt the need to do it when alone, too, but not usually. Furrowing the brow, on the other hand, I think I do do even when alone. Also hunching over.
posted by eritain at 4:54 PM on May 5, 2006


Anyway I don't know whether it's true or an official study or not, but I was pegged as an audio person and it seems to hold pretty true at the time.

Sounds like gobltygook to me.
posted by delmoi at 11:54 PM on May 5, 2006


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