I have updated this article, originally published on 4th December 2017, to include information from Prof. Andrew Huberman, Neuroscientist at Stanford University, who is providing information and tools based on the latest high quality science. His episode on the eyes appears to support much of what I originally wrote below.
INFORMATION FROM THE HUBERMAN LAB PODCAST
In the episode Science of Vision, Eye Health and Seeing Better , Dr Huberman discussed how the use of our eyes has critical impacts on the nervous system, metabolism, mood and, particularly relevant to people with Parkinson’s Disease, dopamine production. He suggests several eye exercises that can optimise these aspects of health, which align well with those I covered in the original article below.
Here are his suggestions.
Get ten minutes of sunlight [but not through a window] in the morning before 10 am, and ten minutes in the late afternoon. This is critical for circadian rhythm and hence restorative sleep. I, and other people I know, have been doing this since Dr Huberman first suggested it some weeks ago in an earlier episode, and it has made significant impact on being able to get good sleep.
Get outside for two hours total a day. This is not just to get enough light into the eyes, but also to get enough time in which the eyes are relaxed by being able to look in to the far distance.
Move around outside such that the scenery is flowing past in peripheral vision while the eyes are relaxed by looking into the distance. Huberman calls this “Self-Generated Optic Flow”.
Track things moving smoothly, e.g. a bird in the sky.
Raise your chin and look up frequently.
Sleep in a completely dark room.
Practice alternatively focussing on something nearby and something far away.
If living in a built environment that totally blocks seeing panoramic views or prevents seeing in to the far distance, one thing I’ve been doing for a while, which I describe below, is looking up to the sky and tracking clouds. It seems I stumbled onto something, as this appears to combine several of Dr Huberman’s above suggestions in one!
It also seems pertinent and of interest that I explained below how, for as long as I can remember before diagnosis, I would always automatically walk around with my head down, looking at the ground just in front of me, lost in verbose thought. From what Dr Huberman is saying, this could have itself been an major impact factor, reducing dopamine production further, in the lead up to my diagnosis. I wonder if this is true for other people with PD too?
At the end of the article, I have listed the timestamps from the episode descriptions of the Huberman podcast where he discusses things which are relevant to the eyes and vision. I will endeavour to keep this updated.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EYES AND VISION
I highly recommend anyone with a chronic illness or nervous system dysfunction of any kind to do their own research into the connections between our eyes, movement and mobility, neurology, and the regulation of our nervous systems. Indeed, eye problems abound in conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease:
Also, many of our cranial nerves are important in operating the complex muscles of our eyes and in vision control. These nerves and their malfunctions have critical roles in Parkinson’s Disease too:
I do not believe these points can be co-incidental.
Indeed, the connections between eye health and general wellness are phenomenally strong, and so being mindful of how we use our eyes is a very important part of the jigsaw to progressive symptom reduction. Here, I will cover some of the things I’ve learned and what I’ve found actually helps me. Primary sources are Dr Eric Cobb of Zhealth Education, Cheryl Townsley – Wisdom Coach, Dr Joaquin Farias – developer of the Farias Technique for movement disorders, and Dr Stephen Porges – developer of the Polyvagal Theory.
Eyes and Nervous System
Our eyes and vision are strongly tied in with inhibition and arousal of various parts of our Nervous System, and hence feed in both to self-stressing and to our self-relaxing activities and behaviors. Many of the things we do these days with our eyes, unfortunately, feed self-stressing. In particular long periods at a computer, with a narrow, near field focus of our eyes, is not associated with relaxation. This is because when our nervous system detects a threat, we tend to go into a tunnel vision like state too, with fixed eyes, making us hyper-focused on the source of danger (a lion say!). Since constant close computer work mimics this tunnel vision, it can apparently arouse a stress response. We also tend to live in built environments, where the distant horizon is not visible, so exercising our long distance vision is not always easy either.
Meanwhile, “orienting” activities, including turning the head or twisting the neck in order to look around, using our peripheral vision, looking into the far distance, and tracking moving objects, all involve the muscles controlled by the Para-Sympathetic and Social Engagement Nervous systems. These parts of our Nervous System programming act to inhibit fight-flight-freeze responses, see
for my thoughts on how these relate very directly to Parkinson’s Disease specifically. Thus engaging voluntarily in such visual activities or “somatically experiencing” the world around us, helps to calm the system, inhibiting or interrupting stress responses.
Eyes and Thought Patterns
Next time you are lost in your own thoughts, as you come out of the reverie, see if you can be cognitive of what your eyes were doing while you were “in your own head”. What were your “unseeing” eyes actually focused on and was the focal point near or far? Which direction, with respect to your nose, were they looking? I believe most of us will find that the answers to these questions are different depending on whether we are daydreaming pleasant thoughts or locked into anxious ones?
Long before my Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis, I was consistently walking with my head down, looking at, but not consciously seeing, the ground just in front of my feet. I was always lost in busy or anxious or stressful thoughts (mostly about work). I do know this was the case because people close to me would comment about it often, especially when they were talking to me and I didn’t respond became a point of contention – my conscious brain simply didn’t register that they were even speaking to me as it was consumed by own thoughts. Mostly, my hands were in my pockets too. In essence, I had disconnected myself from the world, was not present to my life, was not actively noticing or sensually experiencing what was going on around me. Indeed, I was walking around a bit like a person with PD long before the symptoms became apparent.
I can also remember, even before diagnosis, when actively looking at awe inspiring panoramic natural views while in scenic countryside, I still felt disconnected, as if I was looking at a flat picture, rather than standing in the scenery myself. I believe many people with movement disorders will have had similar behaviors and experiences in the prelude to diagnosis?
Some of the best vision exercises that I’ve found which work for me involve combining eye movement therapies, eye muscle training and active noticing. These exercises have the benefit that they can be done (are probably best done) while symptomatic – when the PD medications have worn off or are not working well. However, it is important to note that eye exercises are very tiring, especially when first starting, and so overdoing it can make symptoms worse initially. Start slowly, restrict to a minute or so, and build up gradually over time.
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