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The Brain Series: The visual cortex

Welcome back to the brain series, where we explore the intricate workings of different sections of the brain, understand their roles, their development in children and how mindfulness can enhance their functions.


Last week, we looked at the hippocampus, the brain’s memory core. Today, the focus will switch to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. By learning about the roles of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the visual cortex, we can develop strategies to regulate our emotional responses and thus improve mental health.




What is the visual cortex?


The visual cortex is a part of the brain that processes and interprets visual information from the eyes. The visual pathway starts at the retinas of the eyes and ends up in the visual cortex for image processing and interpretation. This allows the brain to recognise objects and environments without much deliberate awareness. Known as our minds eye, it is a beacon of presence, continually taking information from our environment and helping us connect to the present moment through our five senses. As humans, we rely on visual information to navigate and understand our environment. Unlike animals such as dogs and mice, a significant amount of our brain’s resources are dedicated to processing visual information.


Functions of the visual cortex:


  • Main aim is to acquire, categorise and interpret visual information.

  • Alerts us of danger and safety.

  • Helps us understand spatial relationships and navigate environments.

  • Collaborates with other sensory systems to create perception of the world.


Visual cortex and children’s mental health


The visual cortex shapes how children see the world, and since it is still developing, it is particularly sensitive to environmental influences and mental health conditions. Mental health issues can result in heightened sensitivity to visual stimuli, leading to discomfort and overstimulation. For instance, children with ADHD struggle to focus their visual cortex due to overstimulation.


Anxiety in children can be caused by high sensitivity to visual stimuli, leading to hypervigilance and increased stress levels. In order to effectively filter visual information and focus on a task the visual cortex collaborates with other brain regions including the amygdala, hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex to prioritise relevant stimuli and ignore distractions. The amygdala, for instance, helps assess the emotional significance of visual information, with some visual stimuli leading to negative emotions. This is part of the reason mindfulness can be beneficial to the visual cortex.


How does mindfulness for children help the visual cortex?


Mindful seeing


Mindful seeing, where children focus on details they can see within their environment, can strengthen the visual cortex. When the mind begins to wander into thought, mindfulness can help to bring focus back to what is being seen and the present moment. Children can be taught to use their peripheral vision, enhancing the ability to concentrate on all areas of visual stimuli. Many of our Stix activities incorporate these techniques to initiate mindfulness and anchor your child in the present moment. For instance, our senses activity enhances visual attention by asking children to identify three things around them and consider whether ‘the room is messy or tidy?.’ This encourages them to focus on their sense of sight and reflect on how visual information affects their emotions.


Enhancing visual attention and appreciation 


Mindfulness exercises such as mindful seeing can help improve your child’s visual attention. Sustained focus on the present moment teaches children to become better at maintaining visual focus and avoid getting easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli. Focusing on the present moment clears the mind and thus more mental resources are available to devote to visual attention, improving the ability to notice and process visual details. This can also lead to enriched everyday experiences and an appreciation for the world around us- its colours, shapes and textures.


Improves visual memory


Visual memory is a cognitive ability that allows us to retain and recall information in the form of visual images. This plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, from recognising faces to navigation. Mindfulness can particularly benefit the visual working memory, the ability to hold and manipulate visual information over short periods that is crucial for learning and reading. The visual cortex works in unison with the hippocampus to store visual memories.





Understanding emotions linked to visual cortex


When practicing mindful seeing, children become attuned to how things they see trigger emotional responses. This awareness allows them to observe and acknowledge their feelings without being overwhelmed. Consequently, mindfulness helps disentangle emotional reactions from their vision, promoting emotional regulation and a clearer understanding of the connection between what we see and our emotions. Our activity ‘Mindful Colours’ allows children to learn how each colour makes them feel as they go through the colour wheel. The Stix remotes flash different colours whilst taking them through breathing techniques.


What should we teach our children about the visual cortex?


Understanding how our brains process and retain visual information can help optimise learning strategies, enhance creativity and improve problem-solving skills. It is useful to teach children about the visual cortex and how they can use mindfulness to help it work. For example, practicing mindful seeing by encouraging them to use their eyes like a hawk or tiger to notice new or different things in their surroundings can be very effective. Have them look around at the space they are in, noticing lines, colours, textures, and shapes.


You can describe the visual cortex as the brain’s ‘artist’ to your children. The artist paints to create a picture and the visual cortex uses information from the eyes to create the images we see in our mind. As we look at something like a flower, the visual cortex helps us see the colours of the petals, the texture of the stem and the shape. The artist inside our heads helps us understand the world around us.


Thank you for joining us for our Brain Series. We hope that it has taught you valuable lessons on the different parts of the brain and how you can discuss them with your children.


Remember, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can enhance brain function. Stay tuned for our next blog on Neuroplasticity in children and how it can inform effective teaching and parenting.


 

To check out the other articles in the series, see the links below:

1. Prefrontal Cortex - The brain's 'CEO', responsible for children’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems, concentrate and control impulses.


2. The Amygdala - The brains emotional core, responsible for processing fear and pleasure.


3. The Hippocampus - The brains working memory, supporting learning and memory growth.

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