Adjusting Your Eyes Is a Powerful Way to Instantly Influence Your Nervous System to Calm Down or Wake Up

Let’s start with a fun fact:

Did you know your eyes are two pieces of your brain, pushed out of the skull during development?

So they’re not just connected to the brain. They ARE part of your brain.

Okay, another fun fact:

The evolutionary purpose of your eyes was not to “see stuff”.

First and foremost, your eyes are there to guide and inform the rest of your brain that’s locked up inside the darkness of your skull. Depending on where you direct your eyes, they can have a profound impact on the rest of your nervous system. And that’s what makes this so powerful. Just like your breath, you can take conscious control over your eyes and it immediately impacts your nervous system. So here’s what I’ve been doing when going on walks:
  • Look up.
  • Look far.
  • Look wide.

Let me explain. Read on.

Adjusting Your Eyes Is a Powerful Way to Instantly Influence Your Nervous System to Calm Down or Wake UpLook Up 

Once you start paying attention to this, you’ll probably be amazed at how much of your day you spend looking down. Probably right now, as you’re reading this, you’re looking down at your phone or at a screen, right? Consider this:

There are neurons in your brain that regulate eyelid movement depending on your level of alertness:

  • When you’re tired, your eyelids droop and your chin moves down.
  • When you’re wide awake and alert, your eyelids remain open and you’re sitting upright, chin up.

The two systems are reciprocal. When you’re alert, you hold your eyes open and alert, and when you’re sleepy, your eyes are hooded and down. Here’s the thing:

When you spend long periods looking at a screen or keyboard or book with your eyes and chin down, you activate neurons related to calmness and sleepiness. Having your eyelids slightly closed decreases your level of alertness. In contrast, looking up activates neurons that signal wakefulness to the brain. Sitting in an upright position and having your screen at or above eye level, so your eyelids are open, improves your level of alertness.

It’s easy for you to leverage this fact. When you’re feeling tired, go out for a walk. Instead of looking down at the ground, look up at the sky, the trees, and the route in front of you. You’ll come back feeling refreshed and alert.

P.S. This may sound a bit gimmicky but when you don’t have time for a walk and you need a quick boost, try raising your eyes and looking up for 10-15 seconds. This activates the areas of the brain involved in wakefulness, triggering the release of norepinephrine, a chemical that promotes alertness. It’s worth experimenting with!

Adjusting Your Eyes Is a Powerful Way to Instantly Influence Your Nervous System to Calm Down or Wake UpLook Far

Our eyes are designed in a way that allows us to adjust our vision to see things close or far away from us. This is because they are equipped with a dynamic lens and tiny muscles that focus the lens as needed. To see clearly, these muscles are constantly adjusting the lens by pulling, squeezing, and making it thicker or thinner. That adjustment process is called accommodation. This all happens automatically without you even knowing it, but here’s the problem currently:

Most of us are forcing our visual system to fatigue by sustained close viewing.

Think about that for a minute. How much of your waking time each day is spent looking at things further than 10ft/3m away, do you think? Probably not a lot. As Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford Medicine and Host of the Huberman Lab podcast warns in his episode on the science of vision and eyes health:

Just staying indoors, only artificial lights, and looking at things up close is like visual obesity. It leads to visual defects.”

So, it’s important to give your eyes a break and focus on distant objects often. It keeps the lens elastic and the muscles strong. He recommends spending at least ten minutes per day looking at things off in the distance.

That’s not so easy to do inside. So…

Go for a walk. Look up. Look far.

Your whole body will benefit!

Adjusting Your Eyes Is a Powerful Way to Instantly Influence Your Nervous System to Calm Down or Wake UpLook Wide

This is my FAVORITE one. I talk about this all the time. I now do this all the time. Go wide.

We spend most of our days in some kind of tunnel vision — with a very narrow field of view staring at a phone, screen, face, or book. Doing this is not only bad for your eyes, but it also keeps your body in a state of heightened alertness. A narrow visual field is associated with engaging your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for feelings of alertness and the fight or flight response.

By consciously going from tunnel vision to panoramic vision, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system — the system in your body designed for calm and relaxation and tell your brain and body that “Everything is OK”. You can try it right now:

  • Keep your eyes open and look directly in front of you.
  • Soften your eyes and expand your visual field.
  • Without turning your head, focus on seeing as much of your surroundings as possible to the point that you can see part of your body in that environment.
  • Relax in that moment.

Observe how your body responds to this shift. Notice your breath. Pay attention to the muscles in your face and body. Feels good, right? Again, this is a perfect practice to do while you are out for a walk.

Go for a walk. Look up, look far, and look wide.

Mindful Walking

I really believe there’s nothing a walk can’t fix. (Okay, almost nothing!) Walking has so many benefits for your brain and body. So I hope you’ll give this “Up – Far – Wide” technique a try.

And you know what I’ve noticed while doing it? It’s quite similar to meditation, for me. If you’re not into meditation, I think you’ll especially like this as an alternate practice. In mindfulness meditation, you focus on your breath and gently bring your attention back whenever your mind wanders—without judgment.

Similarly, when mindful walking, you can focus on looking up, far, and wide. The moment you notice you’re looking down at the floor again, simply redirect your gaze. Look up. Keep doing this as often as you need. Focus on looking far and wide.

Just like with meditation, you’re training your awareness and focus muscle, constantly bringing back your attention to your vision. You’ll also feel more present. You can’t use your phone, which is a benefit in and of itself. This practice forces you to focus just on the movement of walking. It makes you feel more connected to your environment and you’ll notice things you’ve never noticed before.

Let me know if you try and what you think!

Guest Author 

Hi! I’m Charlotte Grysolle and here’s what I’m up to:

🔬 Running my 2nd Year of Creative Experiments

👩‍💻 Writing practical guides on neuroscience, productivity & creativity – posted on Medium and on my website (new pieces every two weeks)

💌 Sending out a bi-monthly Stretch Letter to +1,800 readers

✍️ Part of a remote team building the world’s best online writing school

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