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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix


Updated: Apr 13

I sit. I see. Light falls. It reflects off objects and enters the eyes. The retina converts photons of light into electrical impulses that travel the optic nerves. The brain alchemizes these rivers of light into sight. It is wondrous.

Even though my mind may be agitated, my mood depressed, my thoughts fragmented, I can see. My eyes alight on colors. I perceive many shades. There are millions of receptors within the eye that detect light and color. I am aware of the empty space between me and the objects my eyes rest upon. Like a camera lens, the pupils contract and dilate, adjusting depth of field… with just a thought.

Our beautiful eyes have over 2 million moving parts. If the human eye were a camera, it would have over 500 megapixels. By comparison, the top digital cameras have between 102-200 megapixels. The human eye is the only multi-focus lens in the world which can adjust in milliseconds. I am hardly aware of the muscles that dilate or constrict the pupils of the eye or the muscles around the eye that move the eyeballs from side to side (even as I type this). I blink without thinking, but, in this moment, am aware. As awareness blossoms, my mind settles. A calm mind is a refuge. 

Because I have sight, I can enjoy art, writing, photography, and reading among my other interests. With sight, you can take in the symbols we called letters and translate those into sounds, recognizing the serpentine letter s, the curved letter c, the crossed letter x, the dotted letter i. Combined with other letters and blended together, they produce words. Strung together, these words make sentences which grow to paragraphs which may evoke thoughts and emotions.

Because I have sight, I can toss a ball around with my sons. The brain processes millions of bits of information (e.g. the size, shape, and weight of the ball), calculates the ball's trajectory, estimates where the ball will land, coordinates with the motor cortex to move, to extend the arms and fingers, to catch. The gaze locks on to the target (e.g. the ball). Neurons in the parietal reach region of the brain inhibit eye movements to center on the target. The brain predicts, decides, and calculates my next movements in fractions of a second prior to execution. The retina in the eye starts the prediction process—meaning even before signals have left my eyes, the brain automatically begins predicting the ball's position. From the retina, information moves downstream to multiple brain regions. All the while, the brain tracks the real-time position of the ball. In the approximately 80 milliseconds it takes the brain to register the position of the speeding ball, the ball has already moved a further 4m, and yet I catch it. The brain compensates for these processing delays. As neurons pass signals to one another, the wave of activity enhances its leading edge- the position of the ball in real-time- and dampens its trailing edge- where the ball was a fraction of a second ago (Turner et al,. 2024).

It has determined how much energy the body needs to move, to reach, to catch. If I drop the ball, with practice, the brain revises its predictions, makes micro adjustments to movements, adjusting as needed so that I can improve my performance. Is this not wondrous?

Just sitting in my home office and typing, my brain is spatially aware. Numerous brain cells or neurons in the hippocampus work together to create the map of a particular environment- my home office. Each of these neurons, called place cells, becomes activated only in a specific place in the environment. For instance, the location of the desk activates one place cell, and the French doors activate another. If I walk through those double doors to the living room, specific place cells are activated and others will activate when I enter the stairway. When place cells in the hippocampus become activated, they release endocannabinoids, which are lipids, fat-like molecules that mediate communication between one neuron and the next. These signals go away in a matter of seconds. "Before, people suspected that this would be a slow signal that spreads to various cells, but it seems that it is a fast signal that is very specific to individual cells and contributes to its ability to orient and encode information about my location (Dudok et al., 2024)

The eye processes thousands of bits of information every hour. Again, photons of light are converted to electrical signals that are sent to the visual cortex and the superior colliculus. The visual cortex sits in the back of the head. The image that vision renders moves from the back to the front of the brain. As raw visual data streams through various neural networks, packets of information are added- like a name for the object, relevance, importance, valence, emotion.

Simple tasks like reaching for a cup of hot tea need to be coordinated: Hand-eye coordination, memory, problem solving and attention among them. In milliseconds, the brain plans and executes. With a simple glance at the cup, I adapt my movements accordingly. I adjust the angle, yaw and pitch of the arms, forearms, wrists, and fingers (articulating each of the joints). Action potentials in the brain send signals to contract. I apply just the right amount of force and tensile strength to reach and lift the cup. I slowly bring it toward the lips. 600 milliseconds before I move, I take in all the important information about the cup (its distance, weight, position, etc). I don't look at the cup for a long time, memorizing its properties and then planning a course of action. A quick glance supports short-term actions (Keshava et al., 2024).

90% of the connections coming into the visual cortex carry predictions from neurons in other parts of the cortex. Only a fraction of what we 'see" is raw, visual input. The brain matches what we see to words and pulls from memory. What we see is filtered with predictions, evaluations, identification, language from other parts of the mind.

In other words, we co-create what we see.

The visual cortex, which primarily processes visual data, sends signals to the executive area- the prefrontal cortex- that encodes our decision to carry out certain actions, for example (Franch, et al., 2024).

And what we create is often distorted. In a recent study published in the apex journal Nature, researchers found that visual perception at the retinal level changes to maximize personal advantage. Our cognitive biases are not just inaccurate judgments, but play an integral role in how we behave.

The brain decides whether something is worth attending to or not. And the brain is constantly scanning, filtering, and deciding whether to allocate resources to attend to something or not. Interestingly, it could be something exogenous- or outside of the self- or endogenous- a vision or idea in the mind only.

Networks in the parieto-occipital regions process visual information- color, shape, size, volume, distance, etc. The frontal regions process the behavioral response. Attention emerges like a bridge between these two regions. In a way, attention connects perception to action (Malkinson, 2024).

The brain also inhibits or ignores some data and pings it irrelevant. Inhibition of return refers to an attentional phenomenon that allows us to ignore familiar visual information automatically. For example, if we are trying to find our keys, the areas we have examined will no longer be the focus of attention. Inhibition of return may promote efficient exploration.

To cultivate the habit of mindfulness, you may find it enjoyable to dedicate each day to one of the senses this week. Today, I invite you to celebrate the gift of sight. Be like an artist- sensitive to colors, shapes, form, texture, shadows, space, contours, and the play of light. Rather than anticipating or labeling what you're seeing, see if you can go deeper, without naming, without trying to identify what is there, without assigning it meaning, without judging as "pleasant" or "unpleasant" "interesting" or "dull," or looking at it through the filter of past associations.  Be curious and open. Marvel at the details. Approach sight with a beginner's mind, as if seeing for the first time. Notice how the brain automatically filters out some objects as irrelevant and some as more relevant. See if you can maintain balance of mind- not preferring one object to another- assigning each the same emotional valence, gazing upon each object as if for the first time.

When you sit to meditate, experiment with eyes open. Meditators also experiment with gaze to modulate brain activity. Brain activity slows down when we focus our gaze. The brain can switch between slow and fast integration of information, allowing it to modulate the timescales on which it operates. Different processes in the brain unfold at different timescales: While sensory input can be handled within tens of milliseconds, decision making or other complex cognitive processes may require integrating information up to several minutes. When a meditator focuses their visual attention or redirects it to a specific point in space, that changes the timescale of neural activity. There is a strong correlation between the present state of the brain and its state a moment ago. When the neurons are attending to something, they remember their own past activity better, and this implies a slower timescale.

Some techniques call for eyes closed, some for eyes opened. With eyes opened, one focuses on a narrow point as in the Zen tradition where practitioners gaze at a spot on a wall or as in the Shambhala meditation technique where eyes are opened and the practitioner holds a soft gaze angled about 45 degrees. In some Tibetan techniques, practitioners hold a broader, panoramic gaze and look out at the horizon. When the gaze is fixed, the eyes make involuntary movements called microsaccades. Microsaccades modulate the activity of neurons in the visual cortex and related architecture and play a role in attentional shift.

Attention is tightly coupled to these saccades saccades. Before our eyes move towards an object, our attention focuses on it, allowing us to perceive it more clearly—a well-known phenomenon called pre-saccadic attention (Gupta & Sridharan, 2024).

This perceptual advantage is lost when the object changes suddenly, like the flickering of a candle flame. Candle gazing- called kasina in Buddhist practice- leverages this. The flame dances and changes, making it harder for us to process what changed. Neurons in the more superficial layers of the cortex generate attention signals, while neurons in deeper layers produce eye movement signals. These neurons have different activity patterns. The superficial neurons increase their firing rates, to signal the object that needs to be attended to and prioritized for decision-making. On the other hand, the deep neurons tune down their "noise," possibly to allow us to perceive the object better (Chandrasekaran et al., 2024).

Our pupils respond to more than light. Pupil dilation correlates to central nervous system arousal. Stimulation of the autonomic nervous system's sympathetic branch, known for triggering "fight or flight" responses when the body is under stress, induces pupil dilation. Whereas stimulation of the parasympathetic system, known for "rest and digest" functions, causes constriction.

Interestingly, not only does the aperture, or size, of the pupil change, but the aperture of our experience changes as well. When we are relaxed, our gaze is panoramic; when we are stressed, excited, or alert, our gaze narrows. When our gaze narrows, our field of attention also narrows. And by experience, we know that when we are relaxed, thinking is often broader. We can see multiple perspectives when we relax our conceptual hold.

Breath can also change our cognitive, attentional, emotional, and internal states. How we breath, whether slow and rhythmic, fast, erratic, etc. affects our state... and pupil size as well as focus. In other words, if our internal state changes, our breathing changes, metabolism changes, heart rate changes, the aperture of the pupils change. This relationship is bi-directional. if I want to change my internal state, I can intentionally modulate the breath and change my gaze. Frame rate slows down or speeds up accordingly.

Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not just about settling in and relaxing. There are times when the mind is dull. We use breath and sight to stimulate the mind and arouse the sympathetic nervous system. If I hyperventilate, for example, then retain the breath, I trigger my sympathetic nervous system and release adrenaline and acetylcholine. Attention and focus narrow. If I meditate with eyes closed or open and fix my gaze on something either on the horizon or set a soft gaze on the floor, the training outcome will be slightly different.

Certain meditation techniques can be cognitively demanding. Pupil constriction also correlates to mental effort. Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman showed several decades ago that pupil size increases in proportion to the difficulty of a task at hand. "The pupils reflect the extent of mental effort in an incredibly precise way," he asserted.

Interestingly, processing visual information leads to a reduction of activity in auditory areas, meaning we spend less energy processing the sounds in our environment. This works the other way around as well: when we attend to auditory information, we reduce our visual processing activity.

Meditation teacher Shinzen Young offers a powerful labeling technique that leverages this attentional switching. He calls it the 6 Activations. In this practice, we attend to sight (seeing), sound (hearing), and touch (feeling). When we see out- we simply observe and note that we are seeing- objects, noting textures, empty space, color, shape, the play of light, etc. Even with eyes closed, we can see out into darkness. We soon appreciate that even with eyes closed, the darkness has a hue, a depth, form. Seeing in, by contrast, refers to inner seeing. Thoughts may arise, pictures may form on the screen of the mind. When these mind pictures or mental movies arise, we simply label this phenomena as "See Out." "Hearing out" refers to external sounds (the sounds in the environment, the space between sounds, the 3 dimensionality of sound, the multiple channels of sound). When we "Hear In," we are attending to internal sounds that arise as thoughts, conversations, narratives, internal chatter."Feel out" refers to sensations we feel outside- the touch of clothing on skin, the brush of a breeze on the cheek, contraction hear, an itch there, heat, throbbing, pulsing, tightness or any sensations that arises. "Feel in" refers to the feelings that arise- a passing sadness, a momentary stillness, an arising curiosity, a bubbling impatience. We simply identify and label all phenomena that arise as Seeing, Hearing, or Feeling and note whether they are arising externally or internally.

Interestingly, some people cannot visualize mental pictures. Scientists call this phenomenon aphantasia. Reduced autobiographical memories and face recognition are some characteristics of this condition. Hyperphantasia refers to an opposite condition- the ability to visualize images with such vividness, they almost appear real. The ability to visualize, therefore, can be pictured across a spectrum (unless of course you have aphantasia- and can't picture what these words conjure in my mind's eye). It's important to note that neither aphantasia nor hyperphantasia are disorders. People with aphantasia, for example, may be able to comprehend and retain concepts and principles well- but not figures and graphs. They may be good written and verbal communicators, and feel deeply as opposed to seeing things. Also, lack of imagery does not imply lack of imagination. For a small subset of the population, then, some of the practices I share in this post may not be accessible.

Our visual system is a lever by which we can shift not only attention but modulate emotions. What you see, as previously noted, is filtered, and how you see the world- as safe, as hostile, etc.,- affects your mood and state of mind. We select those visual inputs that conform to our mental schemas. Seek beauty and you may see colorful flowers growing in cracks of pavement, wispy cirrus clouds painted on a canvas of blue sky, and find much to marvel at and appreciate. Conversely, one's vision may be so distorted that they see only through lenses of fear.

Sometimes we fear things in imagination. We "see" ghosts and goblins conjured up in imagination that do not appear in the material world. The ghosts could be literal or figurative- the ghost of the past or goblins of the future, perceived slights, imagined catastrophes, doomsday scenarios, conspiracies, plots, unseen threats lurking in the darkest corners of our imaginations. The brain creates meaning out of these wisps of nothingness, and we act out of fear. Fear metastasizes into form. We buy weapons to protect ourselves from fear, we accuse, we attack, we threaten with weapons, with words, with actions.

We can use this same faculty to visualize goals with such detail that they often materialize and come to fruition. Athletes use visualization to train the mind to execute form during competition. During these vivid visualizations, the motor cortex lights up as if one were performing the action. We can use this faculty of imagination not only to picture a desired end goal, but, even more importantly, to map out strategies when conflicts, friction, or setbacks eventually arise. If I want to lose weight for example, I might start off with SMARTER goals. Losing weight is too vague, so I create a SMARTER goal that is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-Bound, Engaging, and Recorded that might look like this:

Specific: Running 3 times a week at Zone 2. I can talk during the workout, but talking may take some effort.

Measurable: I may start with a walk, then increase duration, speed, and intensity progressively, by 10%, over a period of 8 weeks

Actionable: I choose a goal I can physically do. I execute my plan. I may schedule my runs in the morning, before breakfast and before work (or on weekends).

Realistic: I set realistic goals and start where I am. I do not expect to run sub 5 minute miles if I am 60, overweight, and untrained. A walk around the block might be a realistic starting place.

Time-Bound: I dedicate 30 minutes three times a week to train at 50-60% of my maximum heart rate. I run from 6-6:30. I increase distance and speed by 10% every 2 weeks.

Engaging: I may prefer to run in the woods or by the beach. Or I may choose another activity that is more engaging every season: running in the spring, rowing in the summer, high intensity interval training in the fall and cross country skiing in the winter.

Recorded: I track progress with pen and paper, a smart watch, or other tracking device.

Visualization is also a powerful tool for anticipating and overcoming setbacks. After I've set my SMARTER goal, I imagine the inevitable obstacles that will arise. I might imagine, for example, waking up one morning on a day I am scheduled to exercise and not wanting to. I may be resourced, rested, recovered, and injury free, but simply unmotivated. Here, I could imagine an action plan- lacing up and taking a walk outside anyway (despite the wind or cold or rain). I might imagine myself putting on a rain jacket and getting after it anyway. I can imagine how accomplished I would feel after overcoming the resistance, or my end goal- weight loss.

By literally returning to our senses, we can give ourselves a brief respite from the drama of life. May your sight be clear and your mind be at peace. 

First published 4/25/2020

Edited and reposted 4/12/2023

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