Wide Receivers Who Catch With Their Eyes Closed Explained
    By Mark Changizi | February 1st 2010 02:03 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How...

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    It’s nearing the end of American football season, with the Super Bowl fast approaching. These games involve displays of tremendous strength, agility and heart. What you may not have known is that some of the most talented players out on the field are doing it all with their eyes closed.   Literally.    The American football player Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals made news last year when photographers captured him catching the ball with his eyes closed. He apparently does this all the time. And it is not just Fitzgerald who does this: after just five minutes searching online I found evidence that acclaimed college wide receiver Austin Pettis of Boise State, this year’s Fiesta Bowl Champion’s, closes his eyes when catching, as seen in the photo here.

    Austin Pettis Boise State
    How can these athletes be the best in the world, and yet close their eyes at what would appear to be the most important moment? It is less surprising than it first seems.

    Our brains are slow: it takes about a tenth of a second between the time that light lands on your eye to the time that the resultant perception occurs. That is a long time. A receiver running at 10 meters per second (or about 20 mph) moves one meter in a tenth of a second. If the receiver’s brain were to take the information at the eye and turn it directly into a perception of what the world was like, then by the time the perception occurs a tenth of a second later, that perception would be tenth-of-a-second-old news.

    The receiver would be perceiving the world as it was a tenth of a second before. And because he may move a meter in that amount of time, anything that he perceives to be within one meter of passing him will have already passed him – or collided into him – by the time he perceives it. The ball may be moving faster still, maybe 30 meters per second (about 70 mph) or more, in which case it can move 3 meters in a tenth of a second. 

    Seeing the world a tenth of a second late is a big deal. That’s why our brains evolved strategies for overcoming this delay. Rather than attempting to build a perception of what the world was like when light hit the eye, the brain tries to figure out what the world will probably look like a tenth of a second after that time, and build a perception of that. By the time that perception (of the guessed-near-future) is generated in the brain, it is a perception of the present, because the near-future has then arrived. A lot of evidence exists suggesting that our brains have such “perceiving-the-present” mechanisms. And I have argued in my research that a great many of the famous illusions are due to these mechanisms – the brain anticipates a certain kind of dynamic change that never ends up happening (because it is just a drawing in a book, say), so one gets a misperception. 

    Back to catching with your eyes closed. Consider now that the perception you have at time t is actually a construction of your brain: the brain constructs that perception on the basis of evidence the eye got a tenth of a second earlier. So, to accurately perceive the world at time t, one need not actually have any light coming into the eye at time t. …so long as one had light coming in a tenth of a second earlier. Perhaps Pettis can get away with his eyes closed at the catch because his brain has already rendered the appropriate perception by that time.

    Of course, when his eyes are closed at time t (the time of the catch), it means he won’t have a perception of the world a tenth of a second after the catch; but by then he’s being tackled and would only see stars anyway.


    Loved the punchline, Mark.
    These games involve displays of tremendous strength, agility and heart.
    Oh, yes! Those fans will do anything to get into the stadium before kick-off.
    Maybe be closing his eyes, he deliberately avoids crowding his brain with a perception of the world a 10th of a second after the catch, and he's thus able to focus in on the key moment.
    One of the signs that a player's career is over is, after taking too many hits, he starts to see them coming. Because then he starts to think about them. Closing the eyes in that instance may be a career-prolonging defense mechanism, which would put it in the world of psychology rather than ocularity.
    Mark Changizi
    Maybe. Or, maybe they can get away with that kind of career-is-over defense mechanism by virtue of harnessing their perceiving-the-present capabilities.  ?  ...or maybe they're simply lucky... 
    Or maybe these jocks are secret nerds with degrees in cognitive science.
    Or can it be a natural human reaction? When something big is coming at your face fast, you close your eyes - it's pretty much an instinctive reaction to protect the eyes, and matches up with the pictures. Look for pictures of players catching balls chest- or waist-high with their eyes closed - find any?

    Good point. Maybe look at baseball catchers' pics as there would undoubtedly be more photos of them catching balls. And they're balls are traveling much faster than a football. Are their eyes closed at higher elevated pitches, ie, towards the face, but not lower ones?

    Mark Changizi

    I suspect closing one's eyes IS a natural reaction to 220 lbs of angry human flying toward you. The question is, How can they successfully catch while also doing their eye-close reaction?
    It might be interesting to ask those who close their eyes if they still "see" the ball into their hands.

    Touching on this subject I'll relate an unusual visual mystery that occurred to me in my teens and have still not found a satisfactory explanation for.

    I have very limited vision in my right eye. That did not stop playing a wide variety of sports in my youth. While at high school I was playing competitive tennis and adult level competition in squash. I had to give up the tennis because I just could never track the ball properly, swinging and missing increased and perhaps that was because I was playing squash so much I was transferring those skills to the tennis court. In squash I never had this swing and miss problem, I could easily track the ball to the racket. Yet in squash the ball is much smaller and moving much more quickly. I was a good squash player but a lousy tennis player.

    I can only surmise that in squash it is very easy to predict the ball's trajectory, you can even do this immediately after the ball has left the opponent's racket. In tennis however, because of wind and variable bounce, prediction becomes much more problematic.

    Mark Changizi
    Without stereoscopy, you may be relying principally on parallax, which works best close and when you're moving. In squash the ball is closer than in tennis (because you're nearer to it when its your turn, and near to it even when it is the opponent's turn).
    What I want to know is how they catch without those gloves on, I tried some the other day and I could catch anything with those sticky gloves they wear...