Colin Ellard
Source: Colin Ellard

I’ve just come home from a week spent camping in the woods with my children. Along with a few insect bites, a sunburned nose, and a trunk full of rainy day mud, I’ve brought home some refreshment. As a scientist who touts the value of time spent immersed in nature, I’m relieved to say that having walked the talk for a few days, I’ve experienced first-hand many of the benefits of nature exposure.  I feel re-set, relaxed, and happy. But there’s one memory that I keep returning to—something that seemed innocuous at the time.  I was sitting at the campsite one morning, having let my kids know that, nature’s splendor notwithstanding, nothing was going to happen that day until dad finished his morning coffee. My son, watching me with curiosity, asked me a simple question:

“Dad!  What are you looking at?  Why do you keep looking up?”

I hadn’t realized that I was.  But my son’s question made me realize that I must have looked odd, sitting on that little camp stool, hugging a mug of coffee, and staring upwards into the treetops.  I think it looked so unusual to my son because it’s not something that we do very often.  Check this for yourself.  Next time you’re in a crowded public place, look around.  How many people do you see looking upwards?  For most of the day, our focus of attention is either downwards or, at best, towards the horizon.  In many ways, this makes perfect sense. We spend most of our time interacting with what’s right in front of us, usually within arm’s reach.  The majority of our interactions with the world, preparing meals, working on a computer, using a mobile phone, or brushing our teeth require us to focus on a small part of our visual fields and almost always below the horizon.  We look up to scan the skies, to check the weather, inspect an impressive tall building or a natural vista.  In my particular case, my attention had been drawn upwards by the massive hardwood trees, the glint of sunlight through the foliage, the patches of blue sky, and the interesting puffs of cloud that were visible.

None of this might seem to be particularly profound.  We look up, just as we look anywhere, when there are interesting things to be seen.  In my reflective state in the woods, where there was nothing in particular to be done other than to enjoy my surroundings, my gaze was drawn to the beauty and motion overhead.  What is interesting about this, though, is that it turns out that our visual brains have several distinct systems. One of them is more specialized for the graspable interaction space of the lower visual field and another is specialized for the visual field above the horizon.  In his fascinating book, The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History, along with many more technical articles, the neuroscientist Fred Previc argues that this second visual system, specializing as it does in surveying “extrapersonal space,” the distant vistas above the horizon, is especially well-developed in human beings.  Previc goes on to argue that this area of the brain is strongly activated during religious experiences, meditative activity, dreaming, and probably any kind of artistic or creative activity that encourages us to reach beyond the bounds of nearby time and space into the infinite and eternal.  It’s no accident, according to Previc, that meditative states, trances, mystical or religious experiences are often accompanied by upward deviations of the eyes. 

It’s not just when we are gazing into a canopy of trees or a sky full of clouds that we raise our gaze.  When we enter large and impressive buildings it’s also reflexive for our eyes to flick upwards.  Think of a visit to a massive cathedral, a large courthouse, or even a corporate headquarters.  That great expanse of space, so costly to build and to maintain, is there for a reason.  It influences how you feel and what you think.  Builders of impressive religious architecture have always known this.  Large built spaces not only convey power and strength but they also cause us crane our heads in awe and to engage with the infinite.  A recent initiative from the American Institute of Architects also urged us to look up.  The motivation of that campaign was to encourage people to pay attention to the great architecture that’s around them—to look up from their phones and their immediate surroundings and take in the awe-inspiring vistas of the human creations that surround them.  I could well imagine that when we do so, we’re also putting ourselves into contact with the lofty infinite, thinking big thoughts, and contemplating our place in the Universe.  It’s also not at all unreasonable to suppose that the verbal associations that we make between the overhead and spiritual, religious, and moral dimensions of our lives may be related to this division of labor among the visual streams of information in our brains.  Supreme beings are most often imagined as being far above us and not below us.  We stake out the moral “high ground.”

Next time you’re out and about in the world (which I hope will be very soon), look up.  You might be surprised by how a simple act of looking will affect your mood and your patterns of thought.

If you’d like to read more about the psychogeography of everyday life, check out my new book Places of the Heart.

You can find me on Twitter @whereaminow

About the Author

Colin Ellard, Ph.D.

Colin Ellard, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the author of You Are Here.

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