The Neuroscience of Vision and Breathing


From an article on mental health published on November 16, 2020 in Scientific American journalist Jessica Wapner encapsulates the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman about vision and autonomic arousal. She relates that Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who studies the visual system, notes that stress is not just about the content of what we are reading or the images we are seeing. It is about how our eyes and breathing change in response to the world, as well as the cascades of events that follow. The bodily processes of vision and respiration therefore offer us accessible releases from stress. Here are some excepts from Ms. Wapner’s interview with Dr. Huberman:

What is stress’s relationship to vision?

When you see something exciting or stressful—a news headline, a fraudulent credit-card charge—heart rate increases; breathing increases. One of the most powerful changes is with vision. The pupils dilate, and there’s a change in the position of the lens in the eye. Your visual system goes into the equivalent of portrait mode on a smartphone. Your field of vision narrows. You see one thing in sharper relief, and everything else becomes blurry. Your eyeballs rotate just slightly toward your nose, which sets your depth of field and focus on a single location. This is a primitive and ancient mechanism by which stress controls the visual field.

How does this visual mode affect the body?

This focal vision activates the sympathetic nervous system. All the neurons from your neck to the top of your pelvis get activated at once and deploy a bunch of transmitters and chemicals that make you feel agitated and want to move.

Why is the visual field so connected to this brain state?

Something that most people don’t appreciate is that the eyes are actually two pieces of brain. They are not connected to the brain; they are brain. During development, the eyes are part of the embryonic forebrain. Your eyes get extruded from the skull during the first trimester, and then they reconnect to the rest of the brain. So they’re part of the central nervous system.

Having the eyes outside the skull orients the organism to the time of day. But it also means that you’ve got two pieces of brain that can register events in the environment at a distance in order to adjust the overall state of alertness in the rest of the brain and body. It would be terrible if we had to wait until things were in contact with us before we could prepare to react to them.

Is there a visual mode associated with calmness that can change our stress levels?

Yes: panoramic vision, or optic flow. When you look at a horizon or at a broad vista, you don’t look at one thing for very long. If you keep your head still, you can dilate your gaze so you can see far into the periphery—above, below and to the sides of you. That mode of vision releases a mechanism in the brain stem involved in vigilance and arousal.

We can actually turn off the stress response by changing the way that we are viewing our environment, regardless of what’s in that environment.

So with vision and breathing, you are looking at physiological processes that are automatic but that we can also control.

Yes. If I make you stressed, you’ll perspire. But you wouldn’t say, “I’m going to make myself sweat, and therefore I’ll be stressed.” You can’t control your heart rate directly. You can’t control your adrenals with your mind. But you can control your diaphragm, which means you control your breathing, which means you control your heart rate, which means you control your alertness. You can control your vision, which thereby controls your level of alertness, your level of stress and your level of calmness.

Vision and breathing are essential as levers or entry points to autonomic arousal because they are available for conscious control at any point.

Dr. Huberman’s work was brought to our attention last week through a post by Dr. Paul Rollett on the VTODs on Facebook page about his appearance on the Tim Ferris podcast. I also received an email from Dr. Gary Etting who said: “You have to listen to this”. It is the first 30 minutes of the podcast that are most relevant, and here are a few key transcribed excerpts:

Tim Ferriss: I thought I would start right in your wheelhouse and use a headline to introduce the subject of vision. Scientific American interviewed you not long ago and they titled the piece, quote, Vision and Breathing May Be the Secrets to Surviving 2020, end quote. So breathing, I think for a lot of folks, might seem self-evident. Stop that, you have a lot of problems on your hands, or if you do it incorrectly. We can certainly dive into that later on. Vision, I think, will jump out as perhaps odd to a lot of folks. Why vision? Why is vision perhaps a secret or a key to surviving 2020, or any year for that matter?

Andrew Huberman: Yeah. The vision and our visual system is perhaps the strongest lever by which we can shift our state of mind and body. And that might at first come as a surprise because we think of vision as this thing that we have to see colors and motion and recognize faces, et cetera. But the two little goodies in the front of our skull, our eyes, are actually part of our central nervous system. So a lot of people don’t realize this, but your neural retina, the little light-sensing piece of the eyes in the back of the eye, kind of lines it like a pie crust, are actually two pieces of your brain that were deliberately squeezed out during early development. So they’re the only two pieces of your brain that are outside the cranial vault, as we say. And those little pieces of brain have an enormous impact on the state of the rest of your brain.

So it’s fair to say that what you see and how you view the world, literally, has an incredible impact on your state of mind. Respiration, breathing, also on your state of mind and body. But the reason is the following. Our visual system is not just for seeing objects, shapes, and colors, et cetera. Our eyes have two functions. So much in the same way that our ears are responsible for hearing, but also there’s a balance mechanism in there, our eyes are responsible for detecting shapes and colors, et cetera. But also for telling the rest of the brain whether or not to be more alert or more relaxed. And the most fundal fundamental way that our eyes do that is communicating time of day, the presence or absence of sunlight, to our central circadian clock. And then the central circadian clock, which is really just an aggregation of neurons, communicates to the rest of the brain and body whether or not, for instance, metabolism should be high or metabolism should be low, whether or not we should feel like moving or feel like lying down and not moving at all.

But there are a number of ways in which the visual system works on fast time scales to adjust our inner state. And one of the most simple ways that it does that is one that normally happens when we’re stressed or relaxed, but we don’t recognize it. So for instance, if we are very relaxed, our pupils change, the shape of our lens changes such that we actually have dilated vision. We see the entire environment we’re in, so-called panoramic vision. When we are stressed or we are excited about something, the pupils dilate, the shape of our lens changes. Literally, the optics of our eye changes, and the information about the outside world that’s delivered to the rest of our brain and body changes. The aperture of our experience, our entire experience, shrinks. We get so-called soda straw view of the world. We’re looking through soda straws, essentially, when we are alert or stressed. And we’ve experienced this, but we don’t normally notice it happening.

So much like breathing, our experience of life, whether or not we’re alert or stressed, excited or calm, changes our patterns of breathing. We’re all accustomed to that. Our breathing speeding up, or holding our breath in anticipation. But as well, our inner state drives changes in our visual system, the aperture of whether or not we see the big picture or we have a very contracted view of the world. But both of those things, breathing and vision, also run in reverse. Meaning, if we change our pattern of breathing, we change our inner state. If our state changes, our breathing changes. So it’s reciprocal. It’s bi-directional. Likewise with vision, when we’re excited or stressed, the aperture of our visual window shrinks. We get that soda straw view of the world. When we are relaxed, the aperture of our vision expands. But as well, it runs in both directions.

If we expand our view of the world, literally force our visual field, or just — it’s very easy, actually. You can do it no matter where you are right now. If you just try and expand your visual field, not by looking around or moving your head or eyes, but by trying to see yourself in the environment that you’re in. So you literally dilate your view so you could see the ceiling and the floor and the walls if you’re inside. Or if you’re outdoors, seeing as big an aperture of your visual field or your visual environment as possible.

Tim Ferriss: So you’re directing your attention to, even though you might remain looking straight ahead, you’re just directing your attention to as wide a peripheral view, horizontally and vertically, as possible? Is that what you mean?

Andrew Huberman: That’s right. Exactly. So essentially, if you keep your head and eyes mostly stationary, you don’t have to be rigid, you know, rock steady. But if you look forward and you expand your field of view, so you kind of relax your eyes so that you can see as much of your environment around you as possible to the point where you can see yourself in that environment, what you do is you are turning off the attentional and, believe it or not, the stress mechanisms that drive your internal state towards stress.

This is why when you go to a vista or you view a horizon, it’s very relaxing, because you naturally go into panoramic vision. When you are indoors, you’re looking at your phone, you’re looking at a computer or a camera or something of that sort, or you’re talking to somebody or an intense conversation, you may not notice it, but your entire visual field shrinks to a much smaller aperture, and that drives an increase in alertness and internal state. And we sometimes call that stress if it’s a negative experience. If it’s a positive experience, we might call that love or obsession or fascination.

But the important thing to realize is that both vision and breathing have a profound and very rapid effect on our internal state of mind and body, and it runs in both directions. Our internal state, that could be triggered by a text message or hearing something that somebody says, it drives changes in our breathing and our vision. But our breathing and our vision can also drive changes in our internal state. And so that article in Scientific American was a discussion about how we can leverage the visual system and the respiration, the breathing system, in order to take control over our internal state, because it’s not just that 2020 was stressful, it’s that our internal state determines everything. It doesn’t just determine if we feel like we’re having a hard time falling asleep, or we’re having a hard time focusing, for instance. It also determines how we batch time, how we analyze where we are in the world in terms of our lifespan.

A good example of this would be when we are very stressed, we fine-slice time. This is why when people are in a car accident or something, they might report that things were in slow motion. They’re actually, your frame rate increases. Whereas when you’re very relaxed, your frame rate slows down. And when we are relaxed, we get so-called perspective. We are able to say, “Well, this too shall pass.” Or, “I can place this stressful event in a context.”

So one thing that’s just fundamental to how our nervous system works is that we are constantly placing our experience, both our immediate and past experience, as well as our anticipation of the future, into some sort of larger context, and our visual system, literally how we are viewing the world at that moment, dictates how we create perspective in terms of states of mind. Sounds a little bit abstract, but actually, it boils right down to optics of the eye and very concrete things, like how you move your eyes and how you view the world.

8 thoughts on “The Neuroscience of Vision and Breathing

  1. This is definitely in play from birth that we can observe and presumably from prior to birth though we cannot observe it. I have highlighted 3/4 of the article. This also fit the observations of large pupils in those who are huge device users – the view through the straw becomes the entire field so “periphery” is seen in a much different manner. Thanks to you and Paul R for bringing this to our attention.

  2. This is a great article to read. Thanks for sharing. Reading this, I was automatically thinking about the book “Breath” from James Nestor. The correlation between Vision and breathing a phenomenon which I learned while reading this book. There are many breathing methods and you must try them out and see which is comfortable for you.

  3. Reblogged this on PERSPECTIVES -so to live fully- and commented:
    The connection between breathing and vision is yet another marker on how infinitely complex the human body is. We know of this intuitively, and science has again put into human language a law of nature. I thank Dr. Leonard J. Press, an authority in vision development and vision therapy, for this post. I have his permission to re-post it. Many of us in the holistic quest for thriving, as God intends for us all, will find pleasure in this post. Blessings!

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