It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul when in reality they are a window into the brain. By looking at different aspects of how the eyes function, we can look at how different parts of the brain function. What is even more exciting, is that these areas of the brain can plasticize, or grow, with certain exercises in the forms of eye or head movements.
One of the reasons this can be important is if the areas of the brain controlling certain aspects of eye movement are next to an area of the brain that isn’t functioning too well. Performing these exercises can lead to an increased capacity in that area of the brain. Balance, cognition, memory, and mood can all potentially be improved with specific eye movements.
The reason is that controlling the eyes goes from the prefrontal cortex all the way to the brainstem. If we can fire into the part of the brain responsible for visual memory (right temporal lobe), then think about it like “exercising” that part of the brain and possibly then we can see an increase in capacity for visual memory.
In the brain, the nerves that fire together wire together, and sometimes different pathways can lead to the same area. For example, a way to progressively activate more towards the right temporal lobe could be looking into the left visual field repeatedly while looking at different faces of people and saying the name out loud or remember addresses of pictures of places they have been and saying it out loud.
One of the different ways the eyes are coordinated is called a smooth pursuit. This is the ability for the eyes to smoothly follow a visual target. An example of a smooth pursuit is following a pen from side to side, up and down, or diagonally. The eyes should follow smoothly, where if there is an issue the pupils will move in a ‘tic-tic-tic’ fashion much like a water sprinkler. It takes multiple areas of the brain working together at the same time to coordinate these eye functions.
Another coordinated event is called a saccade, and this is either a voluntary or involuntary eye movement towards or away from a visual target. If they miss the target by overshooting or undershooting, or move slower from one side to another, that can be a sign of a deficit. A variation of a saccade can be called a predictive saccade. This is where a person is told to look in a predictable pattern and they basically fill in the blank. Perhaps a person is told to look in a star pattern, and then reverse it. This would take planning, cognition, and memory.
Other than saccades people can fixate their gaze on an object and move their head in different directions and patterns. Although similar broad areas of the brain are required, the minute difference of moving the eyes while the head is stable is different to the brain when the eyes are fixed and the head moves. An example is a person staring at their thumb and moving their head in a specific way to activate different canals in the ear. Although dizziness and vertigo are common symptoms of a vestibular or canal issue, anxiety is commonly reported as well.
Lastly, another coordinated event is called the vestibulo-ocular reflex, or VOR for short. The VOR just means the eyes should move the exact equal and opposite of the head to stay fixed on a target, similar to driving down a bumpy road. When areas of the brain are syncing better, a person might use a reflex like the VOR, which can be a beneficial therapy. An example of this is a person will fixate their gaze on a target and a practitioner will move their head in a specific direction to try and achieve the desired result. Although similar to a fixation, since it is an involuntary reflex instead of a controlled motion, it takes more for the brain to coordinate properly.
It is important to remember that areas of the brain must be healthy enough to support a nerve firing repeatedly. This is where the health of the cell will be a limiting factor into how much exercise different parts of the brain can do. Much like an athlete shouldn’t run on a sprained ankle, an ‘injured’ brain should be cleared for play before exercise. Not all eye and head movements are created equal and a person should be properly evaluated, especially if they are already complaining of neurological symptoms like anxiety, motion sickness, poor balance, vertigo, tremors, or an inability to remember or focus (Alzheimer’s or ADD/ADHD). This way a person can have an individualized brain exercise program specifically tailored to them.