Author: Kate Findley
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Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
How many times have you heard a coach say, “Keep your eye on the ball?” It turns out that there is a neurological basis for this piece of advice. Dr. Vishton explains the relationship between expert status and eye movement.
Studies have found that as someone reaches expert status in a particular activity, brain activity slows down while performing that activity. Related data from studies of expert eye-tracking movements fits this theory as well. University of Calgary Kinesiology Professor Joan Vickers was the first to characterize and name this phenomenon associated with experts, referring to it as the “quiet eye.”
As we move around in the world, our eyes jump from place to place—we scan our surroundings. We make one of these abrupt eye movements about three times per second on average.
Most of the movements are controlled outside of our conscious awareness, but as you focus on some task, you direct your eyes to the most relevant areas of your immediate environment. If you’re a target shooter, you’ll look at the bull’s-eye on the target. If you’re shooting a free throw in basketball, you’ll look at the rim.
As we do this, however, our eyes still move around based on this unconscious control. For example, the eyes might jump away from the target briefly, pick up some other information, and then jump back to it.
Experts, however, exhibit remarkably long fixations on the target in the second leading up to when they perform some action—as they’re about to act, their eye movements stop, sometimes for almost a second. This is the phenomenon that Vickers referred to as the quiet eye.
Dr. Vishton suggests using the quiet eye to your advantage if your goal is to become an expert at a visuomotor task—a sport that requires precise hand-eye coordination. This phenomenon has recently been studied outside of sports as well—in the realm of surgeons, for example.
This tip will work for almost any endeavor, then, in which you want to control your actions precisely based on incoming visual information. In the moments leading up to when you perform an important action, pick the best place to direct your eyes and then intentionally hold them there.
Vickers and her colleagues have conducted many studies that show remarkable effectiveness just based on training people to intentionally exhibit this quiet eye during their action preparation.
Eye Movement for Experts
The quiet eye relates to changes in neural information processing that occur as someone moves from being an amateur to an expert at a particular craft. As our eyes scan the surrounding environment, they continually pick up additional information.
Becoming an expert seems to involve moving the eyes less, not more. Just as the patterns of brain activity in experts suggest less information processing, the changes in the eye scan patterns suggest that you’re picking up less information as well. Becoming an expert, it seems, is about learning where the most relevant information is and where it isn’t.
For example, an expert hunter knows how to filter out all the extraneous information in his environment in order to focus on the animal he is pursuing or detect signs that the animal is near. A professional basketball player knows how to ignore all the distractions in the bleachers and from opposing players to focus on the rim of the basket.
If you’re not an expert yet at your chosen hobby or profession, Dr. Vishton recommends finding someone who’s already an expert to serve as a mentor or teacher. An expert will train you to quiet your eye and scan for relevant information.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.