By unfortunate coincidence, the eye movement patterns we adopt while using a computer or smart phone are identical to those that we use when we’re in survival threat situations like seeing a tiger in the jungle.
Earlier this year I went a popular evening yoga class at a studio in Boston’s Back Bay – an affluent neighborhood populated by successful and career-driven people. As the yoga practitioners waited for the class to begin, most of them frantically tapped on their iPhones and Blackberries, trying to get their last emails sent before turning off their phones for an unbearable 90 minutes offline.
Their eyes were tightly focused on the tiny screens. Their brows furrowed in concentration. Their shoulders hunched forward. Their fingers and their eyes darted around the tiny screens.
Unfortunately these are all visual and movement patterns that increase anxiety. As they tapped away on their screens, they were making themselves more and more anxious while getting ready for 90 minutes of intentional relaxation. Oh, the irony.
Computer Brain and Perceived Threats
Imagine yourself living 50,000 years ago in the African savanna. You think you spot a tiger out of the corner of your eye.
Immediately all your hard-wire survival mechanisms kick in. You’re in full-on survival mode in a peak of stress. Your eyes dart around looking for the tiger. Physiologically, your adrenal glands pump adrenaline into your blood. Your heart rate and blood pressure spike. Your eyes focus narrowly, ignoring everything except what is in your central vision. Your secondary visual cortex (used for peripheral vision) is taken offline and your primary visual cortex (used for focused attention on threats) goes into turbo boost. Your amygdalas (responsible for recognizing and responding to the most important issues) flood your brain with neurotransmitters that shut down rational thinking and your IQ temporarily plummets. Your frontal lobe (used for rational thinking and forward planning) shuts down, and in the most extreme threats, your hippocampus (used for forming long-term memories) gets shut down too. (If you’ve ever experienced terror from a near-death accident, you may have noticed that there is a gap of a few seconds in your memory during the time your body was in automatic survival mode. That’s the result of the hippocampus being shut down or a few seconds.)
So what has this got to do with computer brain?
In her TED Talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, Amy Cuddy describes how our body posture and movements strongly influence our own internal emotions and sense of self.
OK, but still, what has this got to do with computer brain?
Well, this: By unfortunate coincidence, the eye movement patterns we adopt while using a computer or smart phone are identical to those that we use when we’re in survival threat situations like seeing a tiger in the jungle: tightly focused stare; eyes darting around; primary visual cortex engaged, secondary visual cortex (peripheral vision) deactivated.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a short video clip of me working at my computer recently.
Notice the darting eye movements and focused stare?
And I’m no different from anyone else in this regard.
The unfortunate side effect of this is that these eye and brain usage patterns naturally pull us into a state of threat (even though there isn’t one). By using our eyes and brains as if we were in a state of threat, it draws the rest of our physiology into a state of threat.
Doing this for long periods of time, as most of us do these days, puts us into a chronic state of physiological stress.
Try It For Yourself
If you’re still skeptical, try it for yourself.
Sit comfortably in a chair. Pick a spot, look at it, and focus your attention as narrowly as you can. Now pick a new spot and focus intently. Continue focusing sharply on new spots so that your gaze is darting about the room, each time focusing sharply on something and then moving on to the next spot. Keep doing this for several minutes – until you start to feel a significant increase in your level of anxiety.
While continuing to focus sharply on new spots, take some time to also pay attention to what is going on in the rest of your body. Have your shoulders and jaw tightened? Is your brow furrowed? Is your breathing shallow? Are there other places in your body that have become tight?
Here’s a quick video of me eliciting the stress response by using my eye movements and focused gaze.
Not a happy camper.
The Health Dangers of The Stress Response
Research shows that running this kind of stress response can have detrimental effects on health including:
- Heart attacks
- Kidney disease
- Suppressed immune system
- Type II diabetes
- Depression and anxiety and
- Gastrointestinal problems
(I didn’t make this stuff up. This is well-established scientific research.)
So while we’re frantically working away at our computers, we’re literally killing ourselves. It’s not nearly as bad as smoking, but it ain’t good.
The Health Benefits of The Relaxation Response
Herbert Benson, M.D. of Harvard Medical School and Mass General Hospital has been studying the Relaxation Response – the opposite of the stress response – for the last forty years. I attended a talk by him a couple of years ago where he presented to a small group of people who are passionate about integrated wellness.
His and other research shows that engaging the relaxation response can:
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Improve immune system function
- Increase pregnancy rates with IVF treatment
- Improve cognition
- Increase cortical thickness in the brain
- Reduce chronic pain
- Reduce irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems
- Reduce PMS
- Reduce migraines and
- Change gene expression a the molecular level
(Again, I’m not making this stuff up. It’s published scientific research.)
Dr. Benson gave us a simple way to engage the relaxation response in only ten minutes a day. His research found that any practice that involved focusing on a word (or mantra) repeated over and over again invokes the relaxation response. It doesn’t matter whether the word is given to you by a guru wearing a saffron robe or you just count from one to two repeatedly. So to keep things simple Dr. Benson recommended just counting one-two-one-two in time with breathing in and out. (He quipped that he first experimented with counting from one to ten, but his Harvard test students lost concentration before ten, so now he just has them count to two.)
It was simple, effective, and is virtually guaranteed to improve health and longevity. It doesn’t cost anything. You don’t need any equipment. You can do it almost anywhere (although not while driving, please). All you need is a functioning brain, and if you’re reading this, then you have that. (Sorry, Google bots, you don’t count.)
After attending his talk, I practiced his meditation technique ten minutes a day for a couple of weeks. Then gave up.
I found mantra meditation boring.
(Years earlier when I lived in a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan, we had an even more boring meditation form: sitting for 20 minutes while gazing at the Japanese screens three feet in front of us with the instruction to let ‘all thoughts disappear’. The highlights of that practice were the excruciating pain of kneeling for 20 minutes, combined with the head monk coming by and whacking us on each shoulder with a bamboo cane about five minutes into the meditation session. Needless to say, I didn’t stick with that meditation practice after I left the monastery either.)
So, I have developed a way of eliciting the relaxation response that is more engaging and which elicits the desired changes more directly and effectively.
Rapid Relaxation Using the Body-Psyche Guide To Inner Wisdom
Imagine yourself back 50,000 years ago again. Only this time you’re around the campfire with your trusted community. It’s been a good day, you’ve eaten your fill and all is well with the world. As you laugh, sing and enjoy each other’s company you feel safe.
Your gaze softens and you take in the whole family group as your heart expands. Your awareness of your peripheral vision increases as you take in the whole group. Your blood pressure drops. Your heart rate decreases. Pleasant opioid neurotransmitters swill around in your brain.
These are the key elements of the relaxation response.
In particular, the defocused gaze that we use when we feel safe and connected in community is the opposite of the focused, darting stare of perceived threat and computer brain. A defocused gaze activates the secondary visual cortex (a donut-shaped area in the back of your head), which is responsible for things like non-judgmental perception and recognition of familiar faces. It is important for connection and belonging. When we activate the secondary visual cortex by softening our gaze, we directly invoke the relaxation response.
Many meditation practices have taught ways to invoke the relaxation response by using focusing techniques like mantra meditation. But why not go straight to the source and invoke the relaxation response by softening the gaze and increasing activity in the secondary visual cortex?
Do It Yourself
By changing how use your gaze, you can invoke the relaxation response directly
I’ve created a ten-minute guided meditation recording that will guide you through invoking the relaxation response using the Body-Psyche Guide To Inner Wisdom. It’s quick, easy and effective. It’s a fast cure for a stressed computer brain.
The gist of the meditation is to use softening of the eyes to invoke the relaxation response, combined with awareness of other body sites that further reinforce the relaxation response.
You can listen to it here or download it to you iPod.
If you just listened to the recording: welcome to the relaxation response. In ten minutes of meditation have just increased your wellness and longevity.
Make Conscious Transitions from Work to Relaxation
It’s inevitable that when we work on computers, we get stressed. The very nature of how we use our eyes when working on a computer makes us more stressed. That’s not going to change.
But what can change, simply and easily, is to make conscious transitions between work stress and non-work relaxation.
If you take public transportation home from work you can listen to this ten minute recording on your way home. You’ll arrive home feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. If you drive home, you can listen to the recording as soon as you get home. Either way, you’ll feel more relaxed for your entire evening, and you’ll be accruing significant health benefits.
Oh, and one more thing… next time you go to an evening yoga class, instead of stressing over your smart phone before the class starts, take ten minutes to listen to this recording instead. It will multiply the benefits you get out of your yoga practice several times over.
Share the Relaxation
If you know other people who get stressed at work (and that would be everyone you know who uses a computer) please share this article with them by clicking on one of the social links to your left.
I would love to hear your thoughts about this article. Post a comment below. I promise to answer any questions you have.