Emotional Vision

What’s love got to do with it?  Tina Turner doesn’t necessarily have the eyes in mind when she belts out that tune, but neuroscientists do.  Trolling for something else this morning, I came across a a great viewpoint piece I had forgotten about, with the provocative title of EMOTIONAL VISION – Nature Neuroscience 2004 It’s written by Ralph Adolphs, a social scientist who hangs his hat at Cal Tech in Pasadena and his coat at the University of Iowa’s Department of Neurology.

The gist of the article is that emotions can directly influence sensory processing, and can do so at surprisingly early stages.  Surprising, that is, only if one is not  familiar with the concepts of behavioral and developmental optometry.  In this diagram, the components of the  amygdala, the major brain structure involved in emotions, can be seen to modulate key visual regions of the brain that follows a ventral stream of information which helps us in recognition objects and form.

A dramatic example of emotions affecting visual processing is the Streff Syndrome, in which patients exhibits constriction of their visual field and reduced visual acuity unrelated to structural damage of the eyes.  Other manifestations of visual stress include the  cognitive imbalances seen in patients with acquired brain injury and strabismus.

It is still not known precisely how visual information from the retina reaches the amygdala, but as neuroscience learns more about about these connections we will have an even better model for understanding the power of optometric vision therapy that complements, but goes well beyond the kinematics of eye movement or the optical power of the eye’s structures.  Our good colleague Dr.  Bob Sanet is fond of quoting Dr. Lawrence Macdonald as saying: Eyes don’t tell brains what to see; brains tell eyes what to look for, and the amygdala connection provides further evidence of this.

Another intriguing concept cited in this article is that abnormal activation of the fusiform gyrus and amygdala observed in people with autism when viewing faces may result from impairments in the same mechanism.  Ralph Adolphs speculates that dsyfunctional modulation of visual cortices early in life might contribute to the development of abnormal social perception in persons with autism.  This theory is consistent with an article I co-authored with my mentor and colleague, Dr. Jack Richman, on Optometry’s role in the early detection of Autism Specturm Disorders, in a theme issue on Autism for the journal Optometry and Vision Development.

– Leonard J. Press, O.D., FCOVD, FAAO


4 thoughts on “Emotional Vision

  1. Len,
    Nice post! The relationship of emotions to the visual system is a critical piece to helping patients in vision therapy. We heard from Dr. Sue Barry at COVD discuss how neuroscience is showing that it is important for the patient to experience an emotional relevance with a VT activity…in what she coined the “patient transfer package”. The take away from her lecture and what you are describing here is that when the VT experience draws upon an emotional association the result for the patient will be a much better therapeutic outcome.

    • Very good point, Dan, in tying Dr. Barry’s lecture to this. She spoke directly to “patient investment and motivation”. We commonly address the investment and motivation from a resources standpoint, but need to address the emotional relevance as well.

  2. There are also some theories that the development of myopia and of esotropia can be related to stress in the family environment.


    • Absolutely, Carol. They stress theories of myopia have become pretty well known, but less so those for strabismus. We know about optometric viwepoints, but it’s interesting to see some insight from ophthalmologists as well.

      A great resource on line is the Von Noorden & Campoos book:

      The chapter on etiology of hetereophoria and heterotropia ends with this:

      “Van der Hoeve also stated explicitly that strabismus is neither a purely static nor a purely sensorimotor or psychic problem but a combination of all of them. Many modern authors have expressed themselves in a similar vein. For the practicing ophthalmologist the truth, in an academic sense, about the etiology of strabismic deviations is of small importance. However,it is necessary to be well acquainted with the multiplicity of causes that may lead to a deviation,
      for a rational treatment is possible only if the cause is understood.”

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