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 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 the 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 with your breath, you can take conscious control over your eyes.
So here’s what I’ve been doing when out for walks:
Once you start paying attention to this, it’s remarkable how much of our day we spend looking down.
Probably right now, as you’re reading this, you’re looking down at your phone or at a screen, right?
So 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.
Now, these systems are reciprocal.
By adjusting your eye level and posture, you can impact your level of alertness.
When we spend long periods looking at a screen or book with our eyes and chin down, we activate neurons related to calmness and sleepiness. Having our eyelids slightly closed decreases our 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 feature:
When you’re feeling tired, go out for a walk.
And instead of looking down at the ground, look up.
You’ll come back to your work 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. Worth experimenting with! (Source)
Our eyes are designed in a way that allows them to adjust to things close or far away from us.
This is thanks to a dynamic lens, and tiny muscles moving the lens.
To see clearly, these muscles are constantly adjusting the lens by pulling, squeezing, making it thicker or thinner.
That adjustment process is called accommodation.
This all happens automatically, but here’s the problem:
Most of us are forcing our visual system to fatigue by close viewing.
Think about it: how much of your waking time each day is spent looking at things further than 10ft / 3m away?
As Andrew Huberman 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 every so often. It keeps the lens elastic and the muscles strong.
The recommendation is to spend at least 10 minutes per day looking at things off in the distance.
That’s hard to do inside so…
Go for a walk. Look up, and look far.
This is my FAVORITE one. I talk about this all the time. I now do this all the time.
We spend most of our days in some kind of tunnel vision — a very narrow field of view staring at a phone, a face, a book.
Doing this is only bad for your eyes; it also keeps your body in a state of heightened alertness.
A narrow visual field is associated with the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for feelings of alertness (so-called ‘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 (so-called ‘rest and digest’ system.)
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, perfect to do while out for a walk.
Look up, look far, and expand your visual field.
Combine Up / Far / Wide for Mindful Walking
I really believe there’s nothing a walk can’t fix. (Okay, almost nothing!)
So I hope you’ll give this Up — Far — Wide technique a try.
And you know what I’ve noticed?
It’s quite similar to meditation.
If you’re not into meditation, I think you’ll especially like this.
In mindfulness meditation, you focus on your breath and gently bring your attention back whenever your mind wanders — without judgment.
So similarly, when walking, you focus on looking up, far and wide.
The moment you notice you’re looking down at the floor again, simply redirect your gaze.
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!