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Why We Look Up When Searching for Answers

Author:NeuroGym Team

The Science Behind Looking Up in Our Search for Answers

Here are five quick-fire questions to test your general knowledge. Don’t look up the answers, no cheating! Ready for the quiz? You have one minute to answer them:

  1. What’s the capital of France?
  2. How many loaves of bread in a baker’s dozen?
  3. What color do you get when you mix yellow and blue?
  4. Which continent is Japan on?
  5. How many seconds are in a minute?

Well done if you got all five! We’re not actually going to give the correct answers to any of those questions in this article, but reflect for a moment on what you did when you were trying to figure out the answers. Did you notice yourself looking up? Funnily enough, that’s a very common behavior in people when searching for answers.

Why is it that we look up when we’re trying to figure something out? Is there some sort of cosmic link buried deep in our psyche that connects us to the origins of the universe and by looking up we’re trying to search for meaning in the stars themselves? Is it because, as humans, we’re in a constant state of longing to explore new worlds and feel that the answers to our queries may lie on other planets, maybe with other lifeforms? Are we scanning the heavens themselves hoping that they send us a sign? Do we just want to see if there are any cool birds flying around?

The reason is actually not that poetic or spiritual, but rather a scientific explanation. Looking up when trying to figure something out is a widespread behavior because of the way our brains evolved. Just as you might turn down the radio in the car when you’re lost, it all has to do with stimuli and the way our neural pathways connect.

Why Do We Look Up When Searching for Answers?

So, what’s the purpose of this behavior? What makes us look up, or even stare blankly when we’re trying to find the answer to something. Well, it’s all about stimulus.

Stimulus and Senses

The number of senses which humans possess is, surprisingly, a contentious issue, with many dismissing the old model of 5 senses in favor of more, even as many as 20. For instance, perceptions of bodily awareness, like balance, temperature, and pain, are now being considered senses in their own right.

What scientists do widely agree on is that the nervous system plays a key role in how we perceive senses. The nervous system is responsible for detecting stimuli. We can think of stimuli in relation to the body as something that elicits a reaction from us. This could be a noise, physical touch, pain or arousal, or a smell, for example.

Whatever the stimuli may be, it’s received through sensory receptors in the body (for example, the eye, nose, or skin) and gathered by sensory neurons. The sensory information is carried by the sensory neuron to the central nervous system, which is made up of the spinal cord and the brain. The brain interprets these stimuli and sends messages to the rest of the body on how to respond accordingly. For example, if we put our hand on a hot stove, the feeling of pain will be communicated from our central nervous system to the rest of our body, causing us to pull our hand away from the stove.

The Eyes

All animals have senses in some form. As a matter of fact, some animals have senses that are almost like superpowers, and they rely on their senses to differing degrees than do humans. Dogs and cats generally rely heavily on their sense of smell to receive information, and have much stronger noses than us humans (so when we think we smell something stinky we really don’t know the half of it).

For most humans, the eyes that are the sensory receptors we rely on most and where we get the majority of our sensory information. This is to say, we generally perceive light more strongly than any other stimuli.

When light meets the eye, it goes through our cornea and into the pupil. The cornea is a clear layer in front of our eye, and the pupil is the black hole in the middle of the eye. When the level of light is low, our pupils expand to take in more light, and conversely, when there is a lot of light our pupils contract. Once light travels through the pupil, it goes through the lens of the eye and is flipped upside down before going through the vitreous fluid of the eye onto the retina. The retina has millions of rods and cones, which are light-sensitive cells. The cones are for color vision and are activated by brighter light, while the rods help us see in low light. As we mentioned earlier, nerve cells send messages to the brain from sensory receptors. From the rods and cones, nerve impulses go through the optic nerve to the part of the brain known as the visual cortex. The light is then flipped back in the right direction and sent around the brain. From there, the brain interprets the light and essentially tells us what we’re seeing.

It is often said that the eyes are “the window to the soul,” and, as we can see, our eyes are very intricate. The eye cleans itself by blinking over four million times a year and is the fastest muscle in the human body. Provided you aren’t suffering from ommetaphobia, you can thank your eyes for being home to a very important sense.

What’s This Got to Do With Searching for Answers?

So, what makes us look up or stare off into the distance when trying to figure out life’s big questions? It’s all about receiving less external stimuli. Think about it this way: When you’re studying, you’re focused hard and trying to tune everything else out. If there’s a lot of noise in the background, you can’t concentrate.

It’s the same when we’re searching for answers—the brain is trying to focus. Thought may not be a tangible thing, but it still requires a lot of energy. While the brain is an incredible organ, it doesn’t have unlimited resources! Your brain already has to regulate every single part of your body and make sure everything is doing what it should be, so when you throw a complicated question in the mix, the brain needs a little, well, headspace! This means the eyes drift somewhere with less stimuli, like the sky or a blank wall. By doing this, the eyes and thus the brain have less visual stimuli (light) to interpret. It takes more energy to make sense of the different types of light around us than harmless background noise which we aren’t tuned into, which is why our brains point our eyes in a less stimulating direction.

Basically, the brain is busy coming up with an answer to the question you’ve asked it, so we look up at the clouds where there’s less information to take in, freeing up our brains to search for answers.

Searching for Answers

Research Into the Common Behavior

Interestingly, the movement our eyes make when we’re thinking is considered nonvisual eye movement. This is because our eyes are not moving to take in visual information, but rather to limit the stimulus we’re taking in. Research has shown that the networks of sensory neurons that process nonvisual information relevant to long-term memory actually came from pre-existing networks of neurons that process visual information. This means the way we move our eyes when trying to access our long-term memory is similar to the way we move our eyes when processing visual information. The research also discovered that once we’ve found the information we’re looking for (once we’ve remembered what we’re trying to remember), our eyes stop moving.

In Summary 

Previously, scientists thought head movements had a lot to do with thought processes, but the reality is that it’s all about the eyes. When we’re searching for answers, the common behavior is to stare somewhere with less visual information because it means we take in less stimuli. The eyes are an incredibly complex structure that we rely heavily on for getting information, and when we need to remember something, they dart around to help out our brains. The answer to your questions may not be written in the stars, but you may still find yourself looking up if you need to figure something out.

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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