Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? Or to any of those other beautiful spots in the American Southwest where you can gaze out at a beautiful vista? Remember how relaxed you felt? For people in other areas of the country, you possibly felt the same way the last time you were at a beach, gazing out at the horizon over the ocean or lake, or the last time you climbed a mountain (or even a hill that allowed you to see into the distance), and gazed out at those vistas.
What’s up with that? Why do we human beings tend to feel more peaceful and tranquil and relaxed while gazing at beautiful vistas? Well, scientists would tell us that the secret is not in these locations’ beauty, as inspiring as that may be, but because we’re gazing at infinity.
No, not some kind of spiritual or New Age infinity, ocular infinity.
Your eyes are most relaxed when focused on distant objects
According to neuroscientists who have studied the arcane workings of the brain, our brains feel rested and relaxed when we’re gazing at faraway vistas because our eyes are rested and relaxed. The human eye seems to have been designed to be (or has evolved to be) at rest when viewing objects at optical infinity, meaning at a distance of at least 6 meters or 20 feet away from us.
Any time you focus on something nearer than that, whether it’s the computer screen you’re gazing at while reading this, or a book, or even the walls of your house or office, the lenses of your eyes have to contract to do so. This requires the tensing of at least six muscles and the use of six cranial nerves, all in close proximity to the brain itself. Neuroscientists tell us that the energy required to support this effort constitutes 25% of the total energy expended by the brain.
As long as we’re focused on objects closer than 20 feet away, these muscles and nerves and in turn the brain itself are all required to work, and thus we feel some unconscious strain or effort. When we are standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or on the shore of a beach and gazing out to infinity, they finally get to relax, and as a result our brains also relax, and we feel more relaxed. At literally any other time, focused on more nearby objects, we don’t feel as relaxed.
So what do we do about this? It’s not as if we can take vacations to the Grand Canyon or the beach every time we’re feeling a little tense. Fortunately, we don’t have to go that far. We can accomplish the same thing by getting up and going outside, or even walking to the nearest window and gazing out for a few seconds.
The 20/20/20 rule
Scientists suggest that our largely “indoor society” may be contributing both to our levels of stress and tension, and to the degradation over time of our eyes themselves. To keep your body healthy, you need to allow it to rest. Most of us do this at night, while we’re sleeping. But when do we rest our eyes?
One way of allowing your eyes to rest – and thus allowing your brain to also rest – is to follow the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes, take a break from whatever “close-up work” you’re focused on, and instead focus on something at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. This allows your eyes to rest and relax, which your brain also perceives as relaxing. (Alternately, or if you’re stuck working in a “Dilbert cube” that doesn’t allow you to see 20 feet away, close your eyes completely for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.) This will give your eyes a brief “vacation” from their work of focusing on closer objects. The result will be not only less tiredness and strain in your eyes themselves, but a feeling of rejuvenation and relaxation in your whole body, as your brain also gets to relax and rest for a bit.
One study done at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland has shown that doing this not only resulted in relaxation, but in improved memory. Subjects were told stories, and then asked to remember as many details from those stories as possible. Study participants who closed their eyes for a few minutes were able to remember far more details than those who did not.
So consider taking your eyes on an “infinity vacation” periodically during the day. Other techniques recommended by vision experts for doing this include:
• While you are looking at objects at a distance, focus on the green objects. Studies have shown that the color green is more relaxing for the eyes.
• If your eyes are feeling achy or tired, while focused on distant objects roll your eyes gently.
• Remember to blink. We often get so busy with the things we are focused on that we forget, and as a result our eyes become drier, which contributes both to our feelings of eyestrain and our related perceptions of our overall tension levels.
• If you can’t easily gaze at objects at least 20 feet away, take a break anyway. Cover your eyes with your hands and give them an opportunity to rest. Your brain will appreciate it, too.