Just find a point straight in front of you and focus on it. Now gradually become aware of what’s around it…and let your vision spread out in front of you to the corners of the room, as your eyes continue to look at that point and you become more and more aware of the periphery of your vision. If you stretch out a hand to one side of you, you might find the point on the edge of your vision where you only see that hand when you waggle the fingers. Let your awareness also spread behind you…I’m not suggesting that you can literally see what’s behind you, but let your senses of hearing, touch, smell and spatial awareness spread out to the periphery as well…and notice what changes in your physiological state…
Normally, in Western society, we use what’s known as ‘foveal’ vision, where we concentrate on one point in front of us and notice all the details about that one point – watching TV, looking at a computer screen, reading, talking to someone – and ignore everything around it.
Another kind of vision, ‘peripheral’ vision, takes in the whole panorama of what’s happening in front of us and around us. It uses different light receptors in the retina and different neural pathways in the brain.
As you experienced your peripheral vision, you might have noticed certain physiological changes – perhaps a shift in your breathing from higher to lower in the chest, a relaxation of face and jaw muscles, and maybe later your hands became warm. If you normally have an internal dialogue going on, you might have noticed it was quieter than usual, or stopped altogether.
It seems that foveal vision is linked to arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the ‘involuntary’ or autonomic nervous system associated with activity, adrenalin and stress) while peripheral vision is linked to parasympathetic arousal (the part of the nervous system associated with relaxation, calmness and healing). In fact, to the extent that you are truly in the peripheral vision state, you can block anxiety or stress; the two states are physiologically incompatible.
Peripheral vision is known and used in many older cultures as a tool for achieving useful states. In hunter-gatherer cultures, peripheral vision when hunting allows you to catch movements of prey without having to move your head and give your position away; it also dispels fear. In martial arts, peripheral vision allows you to be aware of any movement an opponent makes with his hands, for example, while keeping the rest of him in view. You can see how useful that would be if there was more than one person coming at you at once.
If you are a coach, counsellor or therapist, you may be interested in this more detailed article about using peripheral vision to help clients.
© Andy Smith 2003