Brainjo Bite: Should You Look At Your Hands When You Play?

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So the topic of today’s Brainjo Bites comes from a question that was asked in the banjo for adult learners Facebook group from Beverly. Beverly says, “I just started learning banjo three weeks ago, and I’m having trouble seeing the individual strings in order to hit the right one, any tips for those of us with less than perfect vision?”

So great question. By the way, as I mentioned, this came from the banjo for adult learners, Facebook group if you are watching this or listening to this, and you’re not a part of that group, and you are a grownup who has learned to play the banjo love to have you there, you can just go to Facebook search banjo for adults or banjo for adult learners. I’ll put a link in the description for this video and podcast. 

So back to Beverly’s question. So one of the assumptions in her question is that our vision is important when it comes to playing an instrument. And if that’s the case, then having a visual impairment will serve as an impediment, but is that actually true? How much of a role should our vision play when we’re playing a musical instrument and when we’re learning how to play a musical instrument?

So I’m going to rephrase your question into, should we look at our hands when we’re playing music or when we’re learning to play as you know, vision, isn’t our only sense there’s also hearing, which of course is critically important to learning music. We also have taste, touch and smell. Those are the five big senses that most people are aware of, but we also have a kinesthetic or body awareness sense. So this is the sense of where our body is in space.

And that sense of where our body is in space is mediated by a couple of different systems, our vestibular system and our proprioceptive system, and of those two, the proprioceptive system is the one that’s most relevant for this discussion. Another term for that system is the joint position sense systems. So tracking where our joints are in space and where our body parts are in space.

So our nervous system is constantly monitoring the position of every joint, muscle and tendon through a specialized set of nerves and a dedicated system for that sensory perception. And our brain is taking all that data and maintaining a map of our entire body at all times. And that’s a map that’s being updated at the speed of milliseconds and the signals that are being sent to it are traveling on some of the fastest nerves that we have.

And this system is crucially important for our movements. So as with most of the functions of the brain and the nervous system, we’ve learned the most about what they do when they fail or when they stop working. And in neurological conditions where we lose this proprioception where the nerves that mediate it are affected, the impact is devastating. Balance is severely impacted. There’s almost a complete loss of fine dexterity. We’re only able to make very coarse kinds of movements that require us to watch with our eyes, what we’re doing.

So doing things like using utensils, or even bringing a cup of coffee to your mouth becomes nearly impossible. So it’s critically important that we have this body awareness, this kinesthetic sense of where our body is for all types of movements. So back to our original question about whether we should look at our hands when we are playing music

Now, vision is a super important sense. Our brain devotes a massive amount of its resources to it. And in some ways it can be considered our dominant sense. So it’s natural for us to be inclined to use it.

But what we’re asking here is whether it’s the right system for providing feedback about the movement of our hands when we’re playing a musical instrument. And for that, the answer is no. One of the key differences here is that our visual system is designed primarily to tell us about the world outside of us. That’s the same with taste, smell, hearing, and touch.

On the other hand, our kinesthetic sense, our body awareness sense, including proprioception is designed to tell us things about us. It’s providing data about us rather than the outside world. And when it comes to the movements required to play an instrument, what we need is not feedback about the outside world, but we need feedback about us.

Specifically where our joints are, where our limbs are, where our digits are in space, not about the world outside of us. And this is what the proprioceptive system was precisely designed to do. Because of that, the proprioceptive data we get provides a level of detail about the position of our hands and our limbs that would be impossible for us to get through our vision.

So our proprioception is providing fine details about each and every joint, tendon, and muscle, and our brain is integrating all of that into a dynamic body map. At all times, providing the equivalent kind of feedback with vision would require magnification many times over what we currently have. So it would be like having the output of thousands of cameras that are zoomed way, way in, on different body parts. Obviously we don’t have that.

So when it comes to feedback about our movements are appropriate, proprioception is the better tool by a wide margin. And so from a theoretical standpoint, then we can reason from the ground up that we shouldn’t be relying on our eyes or our vision to guide the movements of our hands when we’re playing music.

But we can also confirm this with empirical data or observations, namely, what happens to those who lose vision and what happens to those who lose proprioception in terms of being able to play music and these observations provide a very compelling answer to our question. So not only can those who lose their vision learned to play musical instruments, they have been some of the best musicians of all time.

In some respects. It even seems that losing vision is an advantage when it comes to playing a musical instrument. And perhaps that’s in part because vision actually serves as an impediment and sighted people have a hard time not using it at all, even if not using it at all would be the superior strategy.

And it’s also likely because those who lose up, lose their vision, end up relying even more on auditory perception, which leads to the development of really, really good ears. And in fact, the extraordinary auditory capabilities that are routinely demonstrated by those who lose their sight are another demonstration of the perceptual plasticity that I talked about in the last episode.

So altogether we can conclude from this that when we’re forced to rely on proprioception due to a loss of vision for playing music, it doesn’t compromise our performance at all. On the contrary, it may even enhance it on the other hand, if you lose proprioception or even if it just becomes moderately impaired, playing an instrument becomes virtually impossible.

So from this, we can conclude that when we’re forced to use just our vision to guide our movements, we become extremely limited. Now, fortunately, that situation is rare. In many of the conditions where that happens, where the nerves that are mediatin, proprioception, are damaged, many of those conditions are reversible.

Okay. So what does all this information mean from a practical perspective? So ultimately the goal is to take these scientific observations about the brain and help us practice smarter. And really the key here, especially as we’re learning to play is to spend time not looking at our hands.

It’s fine to use vision in the beginning as an aid. But as time goes by, you should be spending less and less time looking at your hands and more and more time playing without looking at them. And in fact, this may even be a case where having a visual impairment of some sort is an advantage. You have no choice but to rely more on proprioceptive feedback from the beginning.

I should mention that there is one scenario where it seems to be fine to use our eyes, and that is with longer range movements. So when we’re moving on a string instrument, for example, from one part of the fret board to another or moving on the piano from one section to another focusing our eyes on the target where we’re headed is actually the thing that seems to be helpful. So in that case, our vision is just providing a cue of where we want our hands to go. And you do see a good number of highly accomplished musicians doing that sort of thing with their eyes.

Now we know that vision isn’t necessary to do that sort of thing, because there are people who can do it without looking including those who don’t have sight, but it doesn’t seem to be a scenario where using your vision as an aid serves as an impediment. Now, some of you may have seen some highly skilled musicians who do look at their hands while they play at least some of the time.

And the key there is they’re not doing that because they have to, they’re doing that simply because when you’re playing, you have to have somewhere to look and it’s kind of natural to just watch what you’re doing. Even though they’re not using that feedback in any significant way to modify the movements that they’re making with their hands..