Perspective, or, A Dot With a Ham Sandwich Looking Down at the Seine
Generally speaking, we are a myopic species, and becoming increasingly so as we evolve. The most recent statistics show that nearsightedness affects 42 % of Americans, 39 % of the French, and up to 80 % of the residents of developed Asian countries.
Scientists do not yet completely agree on the reasons for this epidemic, but it’s obvious that, with a few exceptions, our work and pleasure draw our attention to things close up – to details, to screens, to books and gadgets – more insistently and consistently than in the past. In other words, looking near has become a habit, and most of us have lost the reflex of looking far – to the detriment of not only our vision, but our greater wellbeing.
On a clear day…you can relax your eye muscles
Our beautifully complex eyes feature something called ciliary muscles, which contract and release to change the curve of the optic lens, to optimize how it focuses what we perceive onto the retina. Nearsightedness (the inability to focus on objects in the distance) indicates overly contracted ciliary muscles. If there is not enough variation in the distance of what we look at, the ciliary muscles can become locked into a state of constant contraction from too much close viewing.
So: look far, and something is literally relaxing in your head. Try it now, if you have a long view available to you, and see if you can feel it.
(A note about farsightedness, or presbyopia: the number of people affected is quite high, but mainly among those aged 45 and over, whereas myopia is being detected earlier and earlier in children. Presbyopia is thought to be a result of the aging process that involves not only a weakening of the ciliary muscles, but also a thickening of the lens which makes it more difficult to accommodate close viewing. Still, consciously varying the distance of what you look at wouldn’t be a bad idea.)
Clearly, the consequences of looking out go beyond the mechanics of vision. Esther Sternberg, an expert on neural-immune science, posits that what we perceive with our senses directly affects our body’s ability to heal itself. Colin Ellard, who researches the neuroscience of urban design, says that looking out or up “helps us to dissolve the earthly chains that bind us to the prosaic events of ordinary life…and to feel the positive emotion and comfort that come from connection with a greater existence.” Neuroscientist Irving Biederman has shown that the perception of wide vistas (as well as other types of “new and highly interpretable” visual information) causes the brain to release natural opioids such as endorphins.
In sum, some of today’s most fascinating research shows that looking far can boost your immune system, give you a greater sense of connection with the world, and provoke a natural high. It’s not just a matter of enjoying pretty scenery. A wide or long view – sunset, mountain peak, skyline – can give a sense of perspective: a different way of regarding situations or facts and judging their relative importance. It’s not necessarily comfortable. Vistas remind us of the vastness of the world, and our place in it. Long views have a built-in mystery: they take your eye to what’s way out there or way down there. You can look towards it, but you cannot be there, you cannot touch it, you cannot quite fathom it. If you’re quiet in your mind when you look, there is a palpable thrill, a little spark of fear, the good kind, the kind that means you’re alive. If you show up and want to dominate or tame what you see, or impose something on it, it will not likely inspire awe or a new perspective. You have to look, and not know.
The day my husband and I separated, I went with him to the airport. There was a farewell with a flood of tears, and then he walked through the gate and was gone. I was alone, as I had chosen to be, in a foreign city, with nothing, materially, to speak of. Dizzy, sad, and frightened, I stumbled numbly onto the subway and sat trembling on the train back to Paris. I had no idea where to go. Perhaps part of me wanted to curl up in a ball, but instead I found myself on the rooftop of Samaritaine, an old-fashioned, hulking department store near the river. I spent my precious francs on a wildly expensive ham sandwich and coke. And looked out. I was shaking, but the lid had come off the box that my life had become, and the city was splayed out before me, reminding me that I was alone, and not alone. I was small, but alive. What I had done was enormous, yet there I was, a dot with a ham sandwich looking down at the Seine.
When was the last time you put yourself in the position of a dot in the bigger scheme of things, allowing yourself to be small, but see large? To have an overview, and yet not know?