My passion for researching posture has taken me far and wide. I was in a village in Burkina Faso in western Africa when I first noticed how people there would track the conversation from speaker to speaker mainly by using their eyes, rather than by turning their heads. Along with their excellent body posture it contributed to a strikingly well-centered, dignified bearing.
This young man in Burkina Faso demonstrates the dignified bearing that comes with an appropriate amount of eye tracking.
Comparing what I saw in Burkina Faso with what I was used to seeing back home, I realized that in the US, and the wider industrialized world, we move our eyes a good deal less and our necks a good deal more. Why such a difference, I wondered, and what is its significance for our well-being?
In Paul Gauguin’s 1893 painting from one of his Tahiti trips, Woman Holding a Fruit, the unnamed subject shifts her gaze with her eyes, rather than by turning or twisting her neck. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Babies and infants in all cultures track actively with their eyes, both when they are still, and when they turn or reach. One possibility why this changes for children of school age in the industrialized world is due to the amount of reading, writing, and screen time they experience. It seems we grow into a more restrictive, “ahead only” habit.
Infants in all cultures track very actively with their eyes, as my daughter Maya demonstrates here.
My son Nathan tracks with his eyes while reaching for a toy.
As adults, this trend can continue with desk jobs and other prolonged, forward-oriented activities, such as driving. Perhaps this is why, as we age, we develop a more fixed “tunnel vision,” which results in moving our necks rather than our eyes.
Excessive dependence upon neck movement to reorient our visual field often contributes to soft tissue strain and wear and tear on the delicate discs and joints of the cervical vertebrae. Far better, then, to try to reduce this dependence and reintroduce eye tracking now and then.
How can we reintroduce this ancient technique into our industrialized-world lives? I am a great advocate for getting out into nature whenever possible to literally expand our horizons. Time spent with young children, especially babies and toddlers, can give us an opportunity to mimic and mirror them — to their frequent delight!
Many dance forms, including, but certainly not limited to, classical Indian Bharatnatyam and Kathak, also offer us ample opportunities to practice eye tracking, which lends our dance gestures and movements a depth of emotion. By allowing our eyes to track while on a walk or hike — perhaps while watching a darting squirrel or rabbit cross our path — or while watching a sports game from the stands, or while trying out a new dance style, we can provide ourselves a chance to relearn this method of respecting the neck and maintaining an especially dignified composure.