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Close, Closer, Closest to the Screen

Everybody can remember when, as a child, our parents told us not to get too close to the TV. That was “close.” Then the personal computer came and we got closer. Even closer with laptops. Then we went closest with smartphones.

The information which appears on a screen almost compels us in following it with our eyes. Giving attention to visual novelties activates the ancient neurophysiological system which rewards us with a pleasurable dopamine release. In ancient times, paying attention to a visual stimulus gave more chances for survival, so it was rewarded in pleasurable ways. Since any visual novelty was potentially a predator or a prey, our neurophysiological system developed reward systems to give us more chances of survival.

One of the causes of the Internet, videogames and in general addiction to electronic gadgets, could be this need to follow the many external visual stimuli. What happens on the screen brings our attention to what’s going on, thus activating our reward system based on dopamine.

Even though we look at many inputs in fast sequence, our field of vision and the movements of the eyes are very limited, and in many cases we end up staring blankly at the screen. Many years ago, an artist friend of mine, knowing I was spending much time on a computer, gave me a small painting depicting a landscape where the eye could relax in an unfocused way. Very kind and useful, but I didn’t really use it since the pressures of the external inputs were stronger.

This act of staring brings both a limited eye movement and the slowing down of the frequency of blinking. When we spend many hours every day staring at a screen, something is probably going to change on a neurophysiological level.

We know that moving the eyes in different directions can improve memory and the communications between the brain hemispheres. The article of the British Psychological Society says:

One hundred and two participants listened to 150 words, organized into 10 themes (e.g. types of vehicle), read by a male voice. Next, 34 of these participants moved their eyes left and right in time with a horizontal target for 30 seconds (saccadic eye movements); 34 participants moved their eyes up and down in time with a vertical target; the remaining participants stared straight ahead, focussed on a stationary target.
After the eye movements, all the participants listened to a mixture of words: 40 they’d heard before, 40 completely unrelated new words, and 10 words that were new but which matched one of the original themes. In each case the participants had to say which words they’d heard before, and which were new.
The participants who’d performed sideways eye movements performed better in all respects than the others: they correctly recognised more of the old words as old, and more of the new words as new. Crucially, they were fooled less often by the new words whose meaning matched one of the original themes – that is they correctly recognised more of them as new. This is important because mistakenly identifying one of these ‘lures’ as an old word is taken as a laboratory measure of false memory.

Eye movements improve creativity as well as the resolution of problems. Science Blogs describe eye-tracking research by Grant and Spivey (2003). They showed that people solved a medical problem spontaneously without any hints when they looked at a picture depicting a human body through moving the eyes in and out of the pictured body. This is called “embodied cognition,” meaning that some parts of the body reflect an internal mental process externally.

There are also hypotheses which say that the communication between the cerebral hemispheres is improved by moving the eyes in different directions and that could be a support to psychological therapy.
So we know that rotating the eyes leads to an improvement of memory, an increase of creativity, and a greater exchange of information between the brain hemispheres. Information overload, little movement of the eyes, and decreased creative and memory capacities join in mutual feedback. In this respect, I sometimes practice a light neurophysiological exercise by rotating the ocular globes in each direction for several minutes.

I also noted that maintaining the gaze on a near object for a long period of time decreased my ability to see things in a wide perspective and to observe the correlation between information distant from each other. I tend to see details but less the broader perspective. I find it fundamental to take the gaze to a distance in moments of reflection, in a relaxed and unfocused mode. Everywhere I am I tend to stay on high floors with a wide view. Further, keeping the visual focus always at the same distance and at the same angle diminishes the blinking, symbolically bringing fixation of even a thought.

If this fixation is bad enough for adults, it can be even worse for children. There’s strong pressure in prematurely developing the intellectual aspects of children, but much research has demonstrated that children learn mainly through their bodies and how that will give them academic success later. So give your child an early exposure to computers and you’ll most probably make him dumber instead of more intelligent and creative.

Furthermore, close contact with a screen at an early age could even interfere with some neurophysiological development. Alliance for Childhood published Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (College Park, 2001). On page 22, they write:

Infants and toddlers develop their visual-spatial awareness first through cross-movements in space, such as crawling, and then by gradually fine-tuning their hand-eye coordinations, until their eyes become adept not only at following their hands, but at leading their hands in finer and finer motions. Finally, after many integrated experiences of seeing, touching, and moving their hands and the rest of their bodies in three-dimensional space, young children develop an appreciation of visual forms as real objects, and the capacity to visualize objects without actually seeing them. Too much time spent in passively looking at two-dimensional representations of objects on a computer screen – or a television set – may interfere with this developing capacity.

Then, at page 23:

Grade school children need even more frequent breaks from close computer work than adults do. That’s because their muscular and nervous systems are still developing. It’s not until about the age of 11 or 12 that their capacity to balance and coordinate the movement and the focusing of both eyes together is fully mature.

At that age most kids in Western countries were already familiar with screens for years through videogames, gadgets and computers. First, we give them screens to “enhance” their minds, then we give them Ritalin to “fix” them neurophysiologically.

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