PRACTICE: Broaden Your Vision
See the picture above? Does just looking at the endless sky and open ocean make you relax a little? Or maybe you’ve had the experience of spending a long time in the practice room and then stepping outside to feel both your mind and body loosen? This isn’t your imagination or the simply the magical, mysterious effects of nature. Instead, this feeling of “Aaaahhhhh…” is telling you something powerful about your autonomic nervous system and how it responds to certain visual stimuli.
Today, I want to introduce an extremely simple practice that you can do anywhere and pretty much anytime in order to manage autonomic arousal or, to put it more simply, to manage your felt sense of stress and anxiety vs calm and ease. If you have studying Alexander Technique or Body Mapping, you may have encountered the practice of inclusive awareness. This is the same basic idea.
ans in a nutshell
I have written in detail about the autonomic nervous system (ANS) before, but to briefly recap, the ANS governs automatic bodily functions such as digestion, elimination, heart rate, breathing, sexual response, etc., as well as our responses to perceived threat or safety. Very generally we can think of the ANS as having a GO! system (sympathetic nervous system, often known as fight or flight) and a Slow Down… system (parasympathetic nervous system). The latter can be further divided into two branches: one that supports connection, relaxation, and social engagement and one that initiates more extreme immobilization states ranging from dissociation to death feigning. But that’s a bit more detailed that we need to worry about here…
the eyes have it
We also have multiple ways of processing visual information, two of which I’d like to highlight. The first, focal or foveal vision, enables us to lock on to a particular object or position in space. We use focal vision when we play music, work on the computer, read a book, stare at a work of art, or find a friend in a crowded room. Panoramic or peripheral vision, on the other hand, allows us to see all around us — up, down, right, left, and forward — at the same time. Activities like driving, hiking, and many sports make naturally make use of this system, although it is available to us in many situations (such as playing music) in which we often default to focal vision.
Here’s what’s cool: Focal vision is associated with increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the GO! branch of the autonomic nervous system). This can be a good thing when we need to focus on something specific for a certain period of time since autonomic arousal can boost our ability to pay attention. But if we remain locked in this high-focus mode of visual perception for longer than our nervous system can tolerate, we may experience feelings of stress, anxiety, tunnel vision (or “one-track mind”), and hyper-vigilance. But there’s good news! Panoramic or peripheral vision is associated with a decrease in autonomic arousal, or the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This decreased arousal may be experienced feeling safe and calm and with having a broad yet flexible awareness of your surroundings.
Another fun fact is that the hardware — meaning the actual, physical neurons — that make up these two systems are different. The neurons associated with panoramic vision are larger and more robust than those that drive focal vision. This means that, when using panoramic vision, we are better able to process information including movement.
Humans — unlike, say, ruminants, who are all panoramic all the time — have the capacity to toggle between these two modes of visual processing. But the thing is, we often don’t. Instead, we get “stuck” in one mode or the other, usually in focal vision. Not on purpose, of course. But we get lost in practicing a difficult passage, our eyes fixed on the notes and our pulse racing. Or we work at the computer or read for hours without looking up. And then, at the end of a period of focused effort, we wonder why we are tense, cranky, or frustrated. This is because we didn’t evolve to maintain hyper-focus for long stretches of time. Rather, we evolved to focus intently for limited bouts and then to allow our visual system relax back into panoramic mode.
It’s not our fault
In fairness, there are several things work against our ability to capitalize on even the brief moments of recovery and down-regulation that a switch to panoramic vision can provide. Here are a few I can think of off the top of my head:
We don’t know about these two visual systems and how their use (or over-use) can affect our level of autonomic arousal. (But, you know now! So…maybe take a break from reading and gaze out the window for a few moments…)
Our culture — both our classical music micro-culture and our culture at large — rewards productivity and even over-work. We don’t tend to be rewarded for checking in with ourselves, noticing when our system are out of whack, and taking the necessary steps to restore equilibrium.
Often, when we feel as though we need a break from practicing or computer work, we turn to our phones. Not me, of course, but other, less mindful people. (JK — I totally do it.) In this scenario, while we get a break from whatever activity we were previously engaged in, we are not getting a break from the mode of visual processing we were using. Instead of a brief period of rest, we drive our autonomic arousal up even further.
As musicians, we spend a LOT of time in small rooms. Small rooms that, in many cases, don’t have windows. One thing I have noticed — and this is completely anecdotal — is that when I am in my horrible windowless office, I am less likely to look up from my work because there isn’t anything to see. But if I can discipline myself to take regular breaks and to let my gaze go soft and wide, it really does help, despite the limitations of the environment.
Despite mountains of data and anecdotal evidence suggesting — if not outright screaming — that frequent breaks from work are necessary for both physical and mental wellbeing, and that they actually boost productivity, it seems that many of us are conditioned to work until compelled to stop by an outside agent. Again, I am as guilty of this as anyone. Even though I know intellectually and experientially that breaks are nourishing, I still have to set a timer and discipline myself to listen to it. And it’s not because I value productivity especially highly. It’s more like I become a bit of an un-reflective zombie when I get into a task.
The mechanics of moving from focal vision to panoramic vision are pretty simple: Keeping your eyes pointed at a fixed point a few feet in front of you, gently allow your awareness to expand outward so that you take in more and more of the visual field. Keep your gaze soft and receptive. It isn’t so much that you take inventory of your environment but that you allow yourself to receive as much of the visual environment as possible. Try to do this without commentary. That’s pretty systematic, but you might find if you go outside, especially if it is somewhere with open space and a horizon, that you automatically switch to panoramic vision.
Here are a few ideas about when and where to use this practice in the context of music-making:
Take regular breaks from staring at your music, phone, or computer screen and look out a window for a few moments. Better yet, actually GO OUTSIDE! If you tend to get lost in playing, set a timer to go off every so often and, when it does, pause and go panoramic even if you don’t feel particularly activated. Just do it and notice what you notice.
If you don’t have access to a window, as is often the case in rehearsal rooms and concert halls, make a practice of broadening your gaze as much as is possible given the constraints of the space. At the same time, practice noticing if you have gone for several hours without a view of the outside world and make sure to refresh yourself when you can.
We can also practice widening our gaze while playing in both practice and performance. Once we have learned a passage or a piece, we don’t really need to focus intently on the notes on the page. Instead, we can keep our eyes pointed at the music while simultaneously taking in more of our surroundings. In my experience, this not only helps me play with more fluidity, but also allows me to hear with greater acuity. For those who get locked into tunnel vision leading up to or during a performance, this is a very practical tool for literally relaxing the gaze and lowering arousal.
As you play with this, begin to notice if you feel a shift in your internal state as you shift your mode of seeing. Even if you don’t feel particularly stressed or activated while practicing or working at the computer, it is worth noticing if you feel a bit of an internal “Ahhhhh” when you soften or gaze and/or look towards the horizon. You might even notice that you sigh. This is a sign that you diaphragm has released — a common indicator of parasympathetic dominance.
You can level up by taking a few seconds to really savour any shift in arousal and to congratulate yourself for taking a little recovery break. Internal self-reward, just like an external reward, gets the ol’ dopamine flowing (does dopamine flow? probably not…) and thus will help motivate you to take another break later today or tomorrow. This is key if you want to have access to this — or any — simple tool as a resource when you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
A little goes a long way
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: You can derive enormous benefit over time by consistently engaging in these seemingly insignificant practices! Put a little bit of change in the change jar each day and before you know it, you’ll have $20.
My feeling is that it is important to learn to modulate arousal in every day life — in the practice room, while working, during social interactions, during exercise, etc. — if we are going to be effective at modulating arousal immediately before and during a performance. In order for our skills to be there under pressure, we need to practice and this goes for self-regulation skills as much as for musical skills.
it goes both ways!
One final note: If you recognize yourself as a hyper-focuser, it would be ill-advised to swing wildly in the other direction and to try to maintain panoramic vision all the time. Focusing our gaze is, as noted, related to focusing our attention and our efforts. If you want to get shit done, you’re going to need to use focal vision. The trick is to give yourself frequent breaks and to notice what ratio seems optimal for you, given your goals and values.
That said, the process works in reverse as well. If you are having trouble mustering the energy and focus to do what you need to do, you can try directing your gaze to a specific point and holding it there for a minute or so. This might help snap you out of a brain fog and get you moving!
In Episode 10 of the Music, Mind, and Movement Podcast, Vanessa Mulvey described how to systematically broaden visual perception while playing. Check it out!
I have been playing with vision and drawing inspiration from a variety sources for several months. Recently, I stumbled on the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford who studies, among other things, the relationship between vision and autonomic arousal. His approach to this topic is as clear as any I have come across. If 1-minute neuroscience lectures are your bag, I recommend following him on Instagram: @hubermanlab. You can check out his papers here and I can vouch for the following podcast episodes if you want a deeper-yet-still-accessibe dive into the above and lots more that I think is relevant for musicians: