Much like how our experience of life, whether we’re alert, stressed, excited or calm changes our patterns of breathing, our inner-state drives changes in our visual system—the aperture of whether or not we see the big picture or have a very contracted view of the world.
When we are stressed or excited about something, the pupils dilate. The shape of our lens changes. Literally the optics of our eye change, and the information about the outside world that’s delivered to the brain and body changes the aperture of our entire experience.
But, [this process] for vision and breathing also runs in reverse. Meaning, if we change our breathing pattern, our inner-state changes. It’s bi-directional. Likewise with vision.Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman
Tunnel vision is a practice that has become more engrained in our society as the culture has shifted emphasis towards focus and productivity. Naturally, this tendency towards a shrunken visual field inherently contributes to a heightened level of alertness, which essentially is synonymous with a state of stress.
And clearly, at least based on this quote, it can have a profound impact on someone’s experiences and their inner-state (nervous system) during those experiences—and well after, especially if the intense focus becomes prolonged or habitual.
That said, a laser-like focus can induce a meditative state – the act of intense concentration on a sole thing in the present – and bring your nervous system into parasympathetic mode. It’s just knowing how to go about it.
Total immersion in an experience or task and intense focus are not synonymous—It depends on the conditions present during the experience. A “dialed-in” gaze doesn’t really equate to a meditative state if you’re preoccupied with productivity, stressed by background noise or music, reading bad news on your phone or heated from the intense conversation you’re engaged in.
You can enable the parasympathetic nervous system “relaxation response” by harnessing your awareness in the present and undertaking a singular concentration, but refraining from a tight field of vision (which seems to have the opposite effect).
There are distinct techniques to counteract the negative visual effects of prolonged intense focus (like 20 minutes of distance viewing for every 90 min of tunnel vision), but it seems evident that simply zooming-out our gaze can calm the nervous system in a moment’s time.
Deliberately dilating your gaze so that you can see yourself in your environment creates a calming effect on the mind because it releases a particular circuit in the brainstem that’s associated with alertness, aka stress.Dr. Andrew Huberman
Though Dr. Huberman is speaking specifically to the influence of vision and breathing on the central nervous system being bidirectional, in my experience, this phenomenon extends to muscle and visceral tension, and even posture as well.
I also think none of the three are mutually exclusive—they all have the ability to impact one another. And they can all put you into a state of “flow.” Hence, they all combine to encapsulate my philosophy of “finesse life.”
Body, Breath and Mind (Vision, Awareness, Focus)
To me, this theory makes a lot sense since the muscular-skeletal system is also a periphery of the central nervous system, just like the respiratory system and vision (neural retina).
Recognition of muscle contraction, heart rate (breathing) and being in a state of tunnel vision are all part of the interoception system, which is the brain’s perception of your body’s state, gathered from receptors on your internal organs—but more on that later.
These three in conjunction are likened to the “Three Intentful Corrections” or the “Momentary Method,” a term I first came upon in Qigong authority Roger Jahnke’s The Healer Within manual. The “corrections” are used to bring one into the Qigong state, i.e., active the parasympathetic nervous system.
Though it’s no secret these three aspects of self (body, breathe and mind or awareness) combine to form the holy trinity that lays the foundation for any powerful Qigong practice or meditation, I’d never heard of it referred to as such.
The field of vision component can effectively be viewed as analogous with awareness or consciousness—the “focus” of the mind.
And the breathing component is pretty self-explanatory.
Regarding the body element, movement is a separate sense from interoception (known as proprioception), as it is externally-focused instead of internal. However, I don’t see a clear distinction between that and the muscle tension/spinal awareness aspect of interoception.
Though it certainly aids movement, using your vision can detract from your ability to balance in many instances.
The spine is obviously internal, but spinal awareness allows you to orient your posture, and balance or center your body. I would argue, as an internal arts advocate, that detecting the body’s gravity center allows you to physically orient yourself in your physical environment.
I mean, if you have the tendency to put more of your weight on one leg than the other, doesn’t this imbalance also signify more muscular tension in the subordinate leg? But I digress..
I think the muscular tension and postural aspect is brushed over by Huberman (and the neuroscience community in general) because it’s not really quantifiable like the other two. You can measure pupil dilation or heart rate, but how do you quantify someone’s capacity for interoception?
Interoception is defined as the sense of the internal state of the body. It is a sensory system that provides information to the brain about how the body feels on the inside.
However, beyond encompassing just the viscera – internal body components like the organs, muscles, bones and tendons (visceroception) – this “eighth sense” more broadly relates to all physiological tissue signaling.
Interoception accounts for the senses of touch, vision/perception, sensing pain (nociception), and recognizing feelings of anxiety/fear (heartrate).
This last facet, cardiovascular interoception, is the most commonly studied, likely because it is the most quantifiable. It is typically measured by asking a subject to count their heartrate, and compare the actual pulse to the figure they came up with.
Some of these process are entirely subconscious, like immune functioning, or to a degree, your endocrine system (hormones). But other sensations, like muscle tension or clenching your stomach, should be apparent to the conscious mind, at least in some instances.
So therefore, the abilities to both recognize a stressed state via heart rate and to calm one’s self down are quantifiable (pupil dilation for field of vision, pulse for heart rate). But, like I said, how do you gauge their aptitude for recognizing themself in a state of panic or stress by way of muscular tension or body posture?
And what’s more, how do you measure the recognition of your field of vision, body posture or visceral tension?
Regardless, the ability to shift your nervous system from stressed to calm is contingent on your awareness of muscular or structural tension, a tight field of vision, or an elevated heart rate.
Fortunately, there are several techniques I’m aware of that can aid in recognizing an overactive sympathetic nervous system, and help you come out of the stress response.
How to Improve Your Interoception Ability and it’s Impact on Health
I’ve discussed it fairly in-depth in previous posts, but the ultimate technique I’ve found for tapping into your interoception ability is through mindfulness meditation.
It’s not really important if it’s a seated, standing, or dynamic (movement)—choose whatever is ideal for you. The point is, with time, routine practice focusing on your breathe, internal world or body posture through any of the hundreds of available mindfulness meditation exercises will help you better gauge the state of your nervous system.
Some examples I use include diaphragm breathing, the inner smile, spinal waves or spinal cord breathing, or simply spinal posture awareness and adjustment.
These are just a few of the countless exercises that can bolster your ability to recognize muscular tension, a tight field of vision, or an elevated heartrate outside of practice as you go about your day, and allow you to calm your self down—although deep, abdominal breathing may do that of its own accord.
Another potential mechanism that has recently come to light for improved interoception, and thus better control of your stress response, is regular aerobic exercise.
In fact, a 2021 study demonstrated that interoception capacity improved significantly in an experimental group who engaged in 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise three times a week.
The control group did not perform any exercises, while the exercise group performed bench step exercises at an intensity of 50% of heart rate reserve for 30 min a day, three times a week, for three months.
We assessed their cognitive function by measuring their auditory information/working memory processing speed using a paced auditory serial addition task (PASAT) and evaluated their interoceptive accuracy (IA) using a heartbeat tracking task at baseline and 1, 2, and 3 months after the start of the exercise intervention.
There was a significant positive correlation between IA and PASAT scores at baseline. However, exercise did not lead to a significant increase in PASAT scores of the exercise group as compared with the control group. IA (interoceptive accuracy) scores increased at 2 and 3 months after the start of exercise only in the exercise group.BMC Sports Science Medicine and Rehabilitation, The effect of aerobic exercise on interoception
And so, as we can use the trifecta of body, breath, and mind (awareness, focus) to quiet an overexcited nervous system, the key is recognizing a state of elevated stress.
There are techniques out there to improve this ability, and I hope it’s now clear what these tools available to you are.