Good Health is in the Eyes of the Beholder

The Walker Building in downtown Marlboro, MA is an architectural gem. The lower floors feature renovated offices, and on the upper floors visitors can still see small classrooms dating back to the days when the building served as a school. In some rooms, antique black chalkboards have been preserved in the walls.

Due to great strides by pediatric ophthalmologists and educators in understanding children’s vision, chalkboards in new schools are green. The contrast of viewing white chalk on a black chalkboard at a distance juxtaposed with black ink on white paper for close vision was recognized many years ago as a source of stress in early childhood reading. Children’s eyes are designed to perceive colors found in nature. The student who looks at a math problem on the chalkboard and then loses the data when trying to write it on the paper is not challenged by math. He is having a problem coordinating eyesight and brain function.

When a culture is riding on the cutting edge of technological innovation, it often requires a significant lag time before deleterious effects of new technology become apparent. For example, before the drawbacks of X-rays were understood, some shoe stores entertained customers by letting them view the bones of their feet. For our current generation, the knowledge that we have gained in the last 30 years concerning eyesight and brain function has not yet been integrated into our computer and electronic entertainment technology.

How We Read

One of the most significant factors of reading efficiently is the angle and distance that a person holds his paper or book from his face. The Harmon distance is the measurement from the base of the knuckles to the elbow. When a child holds his work at a specific angle at this distance, it optimizes the coordination of the eyes and both brain hemispheres, and indicates that both eyes and the brain are functioning in a coordinated fashion.

The eyes are designed to function and adapt to various physiological and environmental conditions which affect reading capability. The eyes have the ability to “team” or track together, where the right and left eye muscles are working in the same direction for reading across the page. They can also move towards one another to focus on a point in front (cross-eyed) through deeper contraction of the inner eye muscles. This action of converging the eye muscles is an aspect of classical meditation and yoga, where the practitioner will gaze towards the tips of the nostrils or the forehead (third eye).

Under stress, the eyes will shift to peripheral vision and lose their ability to converge for focus and comprehension. Under these conditions, the eyes and back brain open the field of vision and scan the environment — including the perimeter — for predators or prey, as the outer eye muscles overpower the inner eyes. This action is connected with the fight or flight response. Traumatized children often exhibit this “wall eye” characteristic with both eyes in sustained peripheral focus, which inhibits reading ability. Unfortunately, wall eye is also induced when we drive behind a large vehicle such as a truck or SUV which blocks a significant portion of the center of the line of vision. Activating this fight or flight response, associated with aggression and territoriality, may also be a contributing factor to road rage.

When adults begin to experience diminished eyesight, they often hold their papers further and further from the face because the eyes are losing their ability to converge. When children are straining to read, they hold their reading materials too close to the face. When this occurs, the child has resorted to reading with only one eye and processing through only one half of the brain. If unchecked, the developing eyeball may become misshapen. Children with learning difficulties often experience distress when trying to track their vision field. Their eyes jump, they cannot focus and tracking is painful.

Neuroscientist Carla Hanneford is an educator and former biology professor at the University of Hawaii. Currently she presents trainings internationally with Brain Gym of Ventura, California, an organization which conducts extensive research on kinesiology (human muscular movements) and how this impacts the neural basis of our learning. Brain Gym founder Paul Dennison explains that up until ages seven or eight, healthy children naturally have good peripheral vision and depth vision. It is not until the eye field of the frontal brain lobes matures that accurate eye teaming (two-eyed vision) is possible. A culture which emphasizes watching television, playing with small hand held electronic games or forcing children to read too early does not support what we already know about vision and intelligence development.

In the Danish school system, children do not read until the age of seven. Singapore eliminated its goal of early literacy years ago because although nearly all of its children could read by the time they were in kindergarten, by the age of ten they had significant permanent eye damage and needed strong prescription eyeglasses. When children are forced to perform skills such as reading, writing or toilet training before they are able to coordinate the necessary fine motor skills, they will substitute the wrong sets of muscles or use them in the wrong ways resulting in undue tension, stress and potentially delayed development.

Optimizing Our Biology

Computer screens at the wrong angle or too close to the body, websites with black or dark backgrounds and fluorescent text, too many colors or too much text, and looking at a small television screen while riding in a moving car, are examples of activities which are not optimizing our biology. Flashing graphics are especially challenging to our physiology. This includes pop-up ads, flashing, scrolling and blinking text on websites, flickering or animated billboards, and newscasts which broadcast emergency flashing lights of police cars and fire engines on TV. The cerebrum is the part of the brain that processes shape, color and movement of visual stimuli. Flashing light, however, is processed in the brain stem which functions primarily through reflex. This vision-induced shift in brain function from cerebrum to stem caused by flashing lights may have serious health and safety consequences far beyond the impairment of our reading capabilities.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has been asked by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Department of Transportation to research how to effectively mitigate motorist disorientation, also known as “highway hypnosis” or “the moth effect,” caused by the use of emergency warning lights. The project was launched at the end of 2003 and is scheduled to run for 18 months. SAE’s research will include the effects of flashing emergency lighting on normal, impaired and drowsy drivers. According to Fire Chief Magazine (May ’04) “Motor vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of death among on-duty firefighters; an estimated 25% of firefighters killed in the line of duty are responding to or returning from incidents, with the majority of fatalities due to vehicle collisions. New Jersey Turnpike officials came up with the term “highway hypnosis” nearly 50 years ago to describe the tendency for drivers to collide with vehicles stopped along the side of a highway. Emergency vehicles with flashing warning lights seem particularly vulnerable, wherein drivers appear to be attracted to the flashing lights like moths to a porch light and somehow steer unconsciously off the road toward the light. One 1982 Illinois State Police study found that police cars using flashing lights were more than twice as likely to be struck as patrol cars not using emergency warning lights.

In addition to short term risks such as car accidents, it is likely that there is a direct relationship between vision induced shifts in brain function and long term health concerns. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a deterioration of the paper-thin tissue at the back of the eye where light sensitive cells send visual signals to the brain. It is the leading cause of legal blindness for Caucasians over age 65 in the United States. As its name suggests, AMD has been defined as an age related issue, but it is more likely an overuse syndrome, aggravated by unnecessary exposure to flashing lights.

We are also negatively affecting our digestion when we arbitrarily stimulate the brain stem through inappropriate visual cues. This may be a contributing factor in obesity, both for children and adults. It is not simply that commercials on television remind us of food, or that we super size our food at McDonald’s, or that recreation has become more sedentary. When we induce a hypnotic state watching television, we are altering the metabolic rate, possibly for hibernation. When we then continue to eat, weight gain is inevitable.

The best environments for learning, thinking and living include movement, genuine affection for interacting and the freedom to explore and experiment. Don’t let your computer or television get the best of you. That image of the mom driving her car while the children watch TV with a built in refrigerator in the backseat may look like the ultimate technology in comfort, style and convenience, but in reality it’s evolutionary progress only if you are a reptile looking to stunt your brain growth.

What You Can Do

  • Feed your mind with good reading, creative pursuits and plenty of reflective time.
  • The sudden onset of diminished eyesight can be a symptom of emotional trauma. This is the basis for EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy). Seek out a qualified therapist.
  • If you have corrected vision you may be able to improve it naturally with a stress reduction program that addresses eyesight such as Yoga for your Eyes.
  • If you use a computer extensively, explore kinesiology, yoga and movement options such as Brain Gym’s Vision Circles, eye cupping, palming, breathing or eye rotations.
  • Set your search engine to a clean page that does not flash ads.
  • Write emails to websites or call companies that have disturbing graphics, including those that flash movie trailers and ads, and let them know that you object. Stop visiting sites that allow hypnotic images, especially of violence and sex, to be projected to the back brain.
  • If you have a website, make it as clean and calm as possible and don’t combine flashing graphics on the same pages as text.
  • Email or call companies that create pop-up ads and ask them to stop.
  • If you like to watch the news, call or write your station and ask them to stop using unnecessarily jarring graphics and disorienting transitions between camera angles.
  • Ask your company to offer workshops and schedule trainings that optimize brain function and health.
  • Drive a smaller car without darkly tinted windows so that the drivers behind you can see.
  • Don’t tailgate.
  • Spend time outside in nature every day, especially with children.

Patricia Burke is the director of Earthsong Yoga in Marlboro MA. As a dyslexic she has been on a lifelong journey trying to connect the left and right sides of her brain. Contact Pat at 508-480-8884 or email her at