Optic flow, softening the gaze, why we need to spend more time enjoying the panorama
We instinctively know that beholding a beautiful view, a vista of mountains or a shimmering sunset gives food to the soul. A room with a view is a precious commodity that people will pay a premium for. And yet it can feel like folly to gaze dreamily at vistas, when we’re crushed by a back log of day to day chores or racing to meet a deadline.
Now science tells us we should spend more time gazing at horizons. It may even be madness not to do it. We ignore the panorama at our peril.
Dilating the gaze even for a few moments allows a ‘micro recovery for the body and mind according to Dr Andrew Huberman, a researcher in neurobiology from Stanford University. Study shows shifting focus into panoramic vision – allows the mind to reset its focus, and enables it to work more broadly.
Most of understand the need for regular breaks to give the eye muscles recovery time after long stretches of reading or staring at a screen. The benefit of this impacts much more than vision.
“Dilating your gaze between tasks or meetings saves energy and builds energy,” says Huberman.
The sympathetic nervous system responsible for fight or flight response to stress – powerfully impacts our vision. The effect is to bring one thing into sharp relief and make everything else go blurry – comparable to portrait mode on a smart phone.
This intense narrowing of focus activates the nervous system – creating the fight flight response needed to gets things done. Stress makes us move forward, by creating urgency.
“The eyes are designed to control our level of arousal,” explains Huberman. “We need to get past the idea of mindsets. The body leads the mind. When we compress our visual focus, our ability to focus on one thing is better. Visual focus brings cognitive focus.”
In contrast, when the gaze switches to panoramic vision, our perception of time broadens and we feel we have more time and can rest and relax. We need this down time to be more productive.
High performers are good at switching between the two equally important states of visual and cognitive focus. The average person pours disproportionate energy into the stringent high focus regime for the brain. We also need to develop our ability to move into the rest phase. Dilating the gaze in panoramic vision is the way to reset the brain while awake.
Self generated optic flow – the constant shifting focus that occurs when we move – is another important way eye behaviour impacts on the brain. This occurs when we walk, run, cycle or follow a yoga flow – not when we are stationary.
The lateral eye movements that arise when we move through space quietens the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for threat detection. The eye movement stops brain stress so we can better observe and negotiate our environment.
Learning to harness these simple innate tools enable us to compress and expand our focus – quieten and activate our brain at will.