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The Optics of Learning

When we think about the physiology of learning, in other words, the physical aspects of how students learn, the eyes are too often overlooked. We think about posture, breathing, nutrition, and a host of other factors while ignoring the single most important learning tool we have: the eyes. In this post, we summarize the latest and greatest research about the optics of learning. 

There’s a Warm-Up Phase

First things first, students (and people in general) are too impatient when it comes to focusing. We sit down geared up to write that English paper but give up after ten minutes of watching the cursor blink because we “just can’t focus right now.” That’s a poor excuse. I’ve never seen an athlete walk out of practice because he or she wasn’t primed for physical competition after five minutes of being on the field. Learning works the same way. There’s a warm-up phase, and the length of this warm-up phase varies from individual to individual. However, students can shorten this warm-up phase through a myriad of techniques posted on our blog. Interestingly enough, many of the best ways to reduce “warm-up time” have to do with our eyes. The sections below outline the best ways to go from 0 to 60 in terms of focus, productivity, and learning. 

Brighter is Better 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but studying in bright spaces works better. Lighting is a fundamental variable of workspace optimization. Although we have discussed it in our other posts on study spaces and the 5-minute prep, we’re taking a deep dive into the subject of lighting today. In essence, vision and light are vital triggers for the brain to move into a state of high alertness. Being in a well-lit environment, meaning quality and quantity of light, can help stave off boredom, grogginess, and lethargy. Lighting is incredibly fundamental to triggering alert brain states early in the morning, and students should expose themselves to bright natural light as early in the morning as possible. However, configuring bright lights into one’s workspace can also be a productive plus later in the day. When it comes to workspace lighting, we want overhead light that mimics the sun’s brightness. Working under an abundance of overhead light helps facilitate the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol, all of which aid focus and learning. 

Convergent vs. Divergent Vision

Lighting is just the tip of the visual iceberg, though. Let’s talk about visual focus and range of vision, particularly divergent and convergent vision. As you may recall from our post on the different modes of thinking, divergent and convergent are often seen as antagonistic when they are actually quite complimentary. Divergent thinking, which lends itself to creative work, has its place, and so too does convergent thinking, which aids with more analytical work. The same goes for vision in both vertical and horizontal dimensions. 

Where a student focuses his or her gaze plays a vital role in alertness, creativity, and stamina. Whether the student is focusing on a book, laptop, or worksheet, the visual field produces different physiological effects. For instance, when someone is looking down toward the ground, the brain tends to activate neurons related to sleepiness and tranquility, while looking slightly upward has the opposite effect. Standing or sitting erect while focusing on a book or laptop that is slightly elevated produces the optimum visual field for alertness. Now that we have discussed the vertical range of visual perception, let’s discuss the horizontal range. Students can create maximum alertness, focus, and cognition when they bring their eyes to a narrow point in space, which is typically referred to as convergent vision. Thus, we want to keep the visual stimuli to the left and right of our focal point to a minimum when studying. But there’s a twist. 

It is crucial to note that convergent vision is more draining than divergent vision on the eyes and brain. Ophthalmologists and neurologists now recommend students practice divergent thinking for five minutes per hour of convergent vision, which helps improve long-term focus and reduce eye strain. In practice, students can take a walk outside or simply look out a window to experience this benefit. The panoramic view of the outdoors and the horizon serves as a reprieve for our eyes. So, students who use study breaks to stare at their cell phones (tiny screen = convergent thinking on steroids) often tire themselves out without realizing it. 

The Cathedral Effect & Its Converse

Another aspect of vision students must consider is the cathedral effect. Simply put, the height of the ceiling, or the upper limit of our visual field, impacts how we think. Cool, right? This fascinating study on the effect ceiling height has on visual processing tells us that high ceiling rooms elicit better-creating work. In contrast, low ceiling work produces better brain states for analytical thinking. High ceiling rooms or the outdoors tend to produce abstract thoughts and creative ideas more readily than low ceiling rooms. So, students struggling to come up with an idea for their end of the year physics project or brainstorm topics for their English paper should spend some time in high ceiling environments. Low ceiling environments, on the other hand, work best for analytical work laced with concrete details and single-answer questions. Students working through demanding math homework or chemistry worksheets should find a low-ceiling room to complete this kind of work. What if your school or home environment has a relatively uniform ceiling height? There are two tricks to circumvent this dilemma. First, use the great outdoors for creative thinking. Secondly, use a hoodie or a baseball hat to restrict your visual field during analytical work. The awareness of this clever optical truth should help any student get the job done. 

Want more academic coaching and tutoring content to help your child thrive in the modern education environment? Head over to our blog page to view nearly one hundred prior posts. Better yet, reach out today to learn about our flagship one-on-one coaching program. 

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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