Do you look Primal?
I don’t refer to chiseled abs, prominent shoulder striations, and bulging calves that draw queries from failed actors. I’m not talking about loincloths, or fur togas, or wild unkempt hair and scraggly beards, or any of the other aesthetic choices paleo-reenactors make. In fact, this isn’t about your appearance at all; it’s about how you’re using your eyes to look at the world.
I mean: are you using your eyes in an evolutionarily-congruent fashion? Do you look Primal?
First, let’s explore just how Grok would have used his eyes.
There was closeup looking:
- Tool-making and manipulation.
- Arts, crafts, and jewelry production.
- Preparing the weapons of the hunt. Notching arrows, stringing bows, sharpening axes and blades.
- Starting fires.
- Discerning between edible and inedible plants.
There was far-off looking:
- Gazing at the sunset or sunrise.
- Observing herds and gauging their trajectory.
- Spotting prey off in the distance.
- From a ridge half a mile up regarding the valley below and a path through it to the other side.
- Viewing layers of hills stacked against one another, getting bluer as they stretch toward the horizon.
- Watching birds overhead.
Throughout it all, there was a lot of gaze shifting. There was no staring at a leaf for six unblinking hours straight. Tool production was protracted, but not a daily occurrence. Vision frequently shifted between both near and far objects and back again. The muscles controlling the eye moved—a lot. “Move frequently at a slow pace” applies to the entire body.
How about these days? What’s Ken Korg doing with his eyes?
There’s a lot of closeup looking:
- We’re staring at a smartphone held 12 inches away.
- We’re staring at a computer screen 15-24 inches away.
- We’re looking at flat, linear surfaces. Our eyes don’t have to shift focus. We’re looking at the same flat object for extended periods of time. Even our ancestors doing close up work in the past worked with three dimensional objects, so their focus was slightly shifting all the time.
And we’re doing this for unbroken hours a day. We don’t even blink when looking at a screen. Compared to the 10-20 blinks per minute when looking at the rest of the world around us, when gazing into a screen we blink 2-4 times a minute. We can’t pull away. We can’t avert our gaze, not even for the millisecond it takes to lubricate and irrigate our eyes with a swipe of an eyelid.
There’s some midrange looking:
- We might crane our necks to see the traffic situation past the next car.
- We might squint at the sunset before dropping the sunshade so we can avoid crashing on our commute home.
- We’ll look down the street of our subdivision to see if the garbage truck’s coming.
And as for far-off looking? Beyond the annual camping trip to some gorgeous national park with stunning vistas and occasional forays to the beach or desert or whichever wild locale lies within an hour’s drive, we rarely get the chance to look at objects far off in the distance.
We’re certainly not looking up at the stars. Hell, if we live anywhere near a city, we can’t even see the stars.
Why does this matter?
The eye isn’t a passive recipient of visual data. The cornea bends and curves accommodate the subject’s proximity.
Gazing at things up close tenses the ciliary, the eye muscle responsible for controlling the shape and curvature of the cornea and focus of the eye. It elongates the eye. Gazing at things off in the distance relaxes the ciliary. Looking at things close up is hard work; it’s like sprinting or lifting weights. Looking at things far away is easy; it’s like taking a leisurely walk. We need both. But, increasingly, we’re only doing the first. And it’s taking a toll.
Myopia is chronic elongation of the eyeball, which focuses the light from far-off objects just in front of the retina rather than directly on it. This inhibits the eye’s ability to focus on anything but what’s right in front of it. It’s like chronic contraction of any muscle. Eventually, stuff gets locked up. Eventually, positions become default. These days, myopia, or nearsightedness, is the most common eyesight disorder. An estimated 90% of Chinese teens and adults, half of all young adults in Europe and America, and a whopping 96% of 19 year-olds in Seoul, South Korea are nearsighted. Those are astounding numbers.
What can you do? How do you look Primal?
1. Look at something else
Screens fascinate us because they’re always changing, there’s always something new like an email, a Tweet, a hilarious GIF, or an incoming text. We never have to confront the existential dread simmering within if we don’t want to. The screen tempts our desire for novelty without ever really satisfying it. When you’re going through the motions, taking the same route you always take, eating the same meal you always eat, sitting down on the same side of the couch you always sit on, pulling out the phone is the simplest path to novelty. But it’s hell for our eyes, so you need other sources.
2. Forget your phone sometimes
I would say, “Don’t look at your phone so much,” but we’re addicted to the things. That doesn’t work when your physiology compels you to check it and your stress hormones rise because you haven’t looked at it in the last ten minutes. Remove it from the equation by removing it from your person. Go for a walk without burying your face in a screen, grab a coffee and finally start that book you bought three months ago, meet a friend for dinner and chat unencumbered by the nagging presence of your phone. It’s not that hard if you don’t have the thing in the first place.
3. Take your contacts out or remove your glasses sometimes
Long term use of contacts thins the cornea while increasing surface curvature and irregularities. This is a well known but underreported side effect of contact lenses. Akin to protective, restrictive shoes weakening the foot, contacts appear to act as a crutch. That’s not to say they’re not helpful or necessary. But it comes with a cost, like most modern medical interventions.
If you don’t need your contacts or glasses for whatever you’re doing, remove them. Certain situations call for them. But just hanging around? Lots of folks can see up close just fine without their contacts, but because they’re used to wearing them (and removing them is a hassle), they leave them in.
4. Consider lower prescription lenses
Try 0.5 less than you were prescribed. It’ll help your vision but cause less thinning than full prescription. And if commit to it, you may be able to titrate even lower as you get acclimated to the new prescription. Train your eyes.
Todd Becker describes the method in detail.
5. Eat your fish
Omega-3s offer a range of benefits for eye lubrication. They reduce dry eyes in contact wearers, heavy computer users, and rosacea patients.
6. Eat vitamin A
Turns out that carrots really are good for your vision. A 2005 study found that vitamin A from either goat liver, supplements, carrots, fortified rice, or amaranth leaves improves night vision in pregnant women (liver and supplements were most effective). Other studies have found similar results.
Pre-formed vitamin A might be better than vegetable carotenes. Vitamin A, or retinol was discovered after scientists found adding butter or egg yolks to carotenoid-deficient diets prevented blindness in animals. It’s only found in animal products like liver, egg yolks, cod liver oil (also a good source of omega-3s) and grass-fed dairy. Rather than rely on the human body’s often inefficient conversion of carotenoids into retinol, let animals do it for you.
When we’re focusing on something (making a tool, skinning an animal, skewering a Twitter opponent), we stop blinking. But blinking nourishes our eyes and keeps them lubricated. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a frequent user of technology who focuses their eyes and you should probably blink more often. This isn’t easy. You’re gonna have to remind yourself to perform a normally subconscious physiological task.
Setting up a “blink alarm” could work, but it’d have to go off every fifteen seconds and would certainly disrupt your work flow. You and a colleague could remind each other to blink, but that’d also be disruptive. Perhaps the simplest and least intrusive reminder is a piece of paper with “blink” written on it attached to your computer.
8. Take frequent vision breaks
Every 20 minutes or so stop what you’re doing and look at something far away. Some people say 20/20/20—every 20 minutes, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet away. Either way works. This allows your eyes to unfocus and relax.
An alarm should work great here. Set it go off every 20 minutes until you get used to the idea. You might make it a walking break while you’re at it, because why not?
9. Wear glasses, not contacts
If you have to wear something for close-up work, choose glasses. Contacts dry the eyes and reduce lubrication/blinking. All this increases eye strain and heightens the unwanted adaptive response of the eye musculature.
10. Keep your screen (or book) at least an arm length’s away
Don’t hunch over your screen. Don’t press your mug against it. Keep it at least an arm’s length from you. Use larger font if you have to; it’s not the size of the font but the physical distance that changes how your eye muscles contract.
11. Take off the shades sometimes
Sunglasses are a fantastic invention. I wear them myself sometimes. But pure unfiltered sunlight itself appears to have beneficial effects on eye health in moderate doses. Don’t go blind. Don’t stare into the sun. However, just like you can expose your skin to sun without getting burnt, you can expose your eyes to sunlight without damaging them. And I strongly suspect you should. Even if it doesn’t improve adult eye health, getting natural sunlight into your retina during the day will improve your sleep and increase your resistance to the circadian-disrupting effects of nighttime blue light.
12. Go outside
The relationship between outdoor time and vision problems is unclear. Whether going outdoors actively improves eyesight, or it improves eyesight because time outdoors is time spent not staring at a screen doesn’t really matter. The fact is when you go outside you’re looking at objects all over the place, both near and far away. You’re getting sunlight into your eyes. You’re getting vitamin D, which could be a proxy for outdoor time and light exposure but is linked to better eyesight. You’re relaxing your eye muscles and practicing “general vision” rather than focusing on a single two dimensional plane 12 inches in front of your face. It’s all good.
13. Look “through” objects
Hold your fist up about a foot from your face and look directly at it. It will obscure whatever lies behind it. Now look “through” it. You’ll suddenly be able to see whatever’s behind your fist. Your fist will appear as a small sliver in the middle of your vision and your eyes will be incredibly soft and relaxed. If you can’t figure this one out, try hidden image stereograms. Hidden image stereograms are tiled patterns that reveal hidden images when you look “through” the stereogram. I remember doing these in grade school. Check out the parallel view, cross view, and magic eye subreddits for some resources.
14. Look at really far-off objects
Anything works. Vistas. Sunsets. Mountains. Climbing a mountain above your city and trying to spot your home. Horizons. Tracking a jet flying overhead.
This post won’t cure blindness, or myopia, or allow you to switch prescriptions. But it may help improve your situation a bit, and it definitely won’t hurt your eyesight or accelerate its degeneration.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Got any more tips? Stories? What’s worked and what hasn’t for your vision?
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