The Eyes Have It
By Ann Constantino,
Vision is generally regarded as the primary human sense. When unimpaired, we tend to rely on vision above any other sensory input. As such, vision plays a key role in almost everything the brain does and many studies over the past decade have shown that vision training can have a positive influence on many health issues.
The brain has three main jobs: 1. To receive input from the sensory system. 2. To interpret that input. 3. To create output via the motor system appropriate to the interpretation of the input. It is commonly accepted that the quality of the output is dependent on the quality of the input. The better input your eyes provide, the better output your brain will create.
As we have evolved into sitting creatures who don’t move much and whose vision is more and more used to much more received input from a screen compared to pre-electronic times, the big picture of our visual health has deteriorated, and along with it, some surprising aspects of our overall health.
Screen time, vision, and health
“…various health issues respond favorably to vision training…”
A 2020 study showed that an increase in the onset of childhood and adolescent myopia (near-sightedness) correlates to screen time. It was demonstrated that kids who spend more time outdoors and less time in front of screens or on electronic devices are less likely to develop myopia.
While not a particularly desirable result, this tendency also shows that as with many kinds of human development, there is a use it or lose it predilection at work.
By the same token, various health issues respond favorably to vision training, mostly from the angle of providing improved input quality, leading to improved output.
In a study of college football players who received vision training as part of their pre-season conditioning as well as their in-season maintenance regime, the incidence of concussion dropped remarkably from 9.2 per one hundred hours of playing time to 1.4. The training of the athletes’ vision enabled them to better perceive the circumstances around them during play and thus avoid concussion causing situations. Vision training increases neck muscular strength and improves reaction time, two more ingredients of concussion avoidance.
Given what we know about how debilitating concussions can be long term, especially when repeated, which is often the case in high contact sports, the simple addition of vision training can dramatically improve the lifelong health of these athletes. This has obvious applications in everyday life for any of us charter members of the maladroit club.
Vision’s connection to pain
In several studies involving pain science vision has been shown to have an influence on how much pain we feel. When we are in pain, the brain is often unsettled and erratic, and so are the eyes. Two visual techniques have been shown to reduce pain. The first is called gaze stabilization and it involves simply fixing your gaze on an object. This settles the brain, which, when overstimulated, tends to ramp up the pain response.
(We have mentioned before that pain is a reaction or output by the brain–not the tissue– in response to some kind of threat to the body. Many times, when pain becomes chronic it is more a matter of the brain’s habit than any actual threat to the tissue. It is thought that taking the brain out of its habit of anticipating pain by changing what the eyes are doing is what lessens the sensation of pain.)
The second technique is to simply close the eyes and remove the habitual visual agitation that happens when the brain expects pain.
This is something you can try for yourself. If you have a chronic ache in a shoulder or knee, try closing and quieting the eyes OR settling a peaceful gaze on an object for a few minutes and see if it makes a difference in the level of pain you are experiencing.
“With elders and/or stroke victims, vision training has been shown to help make up for impairment…”
We have also discussed before that vision is one piece of our 3-part balance system that also includes the vestibular (inner ear) system and our proprioceptive sense which tells us where we are in space through sensors on the skin throughout the body.
With elders and/or stroke victims, vision training has been shown to help make up for impairment in the non-visual systems by improving depth perception and peripheral awareness.
In another study, vision training, combined with yoga breathing, relaxation and posture work, lessened the symptoms of digital eye strain suffered by workers parked in front of a computer screen all day by a significant amount.
In another study looking at contrast sensitivity, a group of young people (average age 22) was given the same type of vision training as a group of elders (average age 71). In the aging population, the brain is the culprit rather than the eye itself in reduction of contrast sensitivity. When this sensitivity is compromised details become grainy and unclear, leading to obvious increased risk while driving, balancing on one’s feet or reading tiny print on medication containers. In just one week of training for 90 minutes a day, the older group showed a marked improvement in their contrast sensitivity, matching that of the younger cohort.
Surprisingly, even the younger study participants showed improvements, especially in their distance vision, while the elders got better at seeing up close.
Exercise for the eyes
Finally, there is a piece of vision training that has some direct effect on the eye itself, and that in turn can improve visual processing in the brain. While there is no evidence that eye exercises can reverse or slow eye conditions such as myopia or macular degeneration, giving your extra-ocular muscles a workout will make the eye more competent and can lead to higher quality input for the brain to interpret.
There are many eye exercises you can do on a daily basis to encourage this effect.
- Spend time every day looking into the distance. So much of our focus is close up these days, and it’s a use it or lose it phenomenon.
- Move your eyes in all directions without moving your head. There are dozens of ways to do this: alternating right/left, up/down, and on both diagonals; make circles, figure eights, or other shapes with your eyes, cultivating a greater and more comfortable range of motion as you improve by extending the size of the movements.
- Depth judgment can be worked on by switching your point of focus from a near object to a distant one as quickly as you comfortably can, and varying the distances you are working with.
- Perception of detail can be improved by training yourself to focus on a specific part of a moving object. For instance, toss a tennis ball up and try to focus on the label while the ball is up the air. If it’s spinning, try to focus on that label every time it spins your way. This will help you pick up minute details in your environment such as dangerous projectiles hurtling through space the next time you are playing outfield for the Yankees in Boston.
Ask your provider for some eye exercise recommendations or a referral to a specialist who can help with your specific issues. Or consult the internet being wary of claims that you will no longer need glasses after 5 minutes of some amazing technique. One user friendly website that offers a wide variety of vision training techniques, many free of charge, is Zhealtheducation.com
At the very least, look around at our beautiful environment whenever you can. See the big picture nature graces us with. It’s good for your vision and it’s good for your sense of connection and belonging. We are all in this together.
Submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health Outreach Department
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.