The eyes have been referred to the gateway to the soul. Sometimes they are reflective of psychological problems such as physical and sexual abuse or post traumatic stress syndrome.
Your eyes have two different mechanisms of tracking moving objects. The first type are referred to as pursuit eye movements and are used to track an object moving at slower speeds. These are steady movements that keep up with the moving objects speed. When watching a baseball game you would probably be using pursuit movements most of the time. When the speed becomes to fast the pursuits can’t keep up and saccadic eye movements occur. These are some of the fastest movements our bodies are capable of and resemble a jump of the eyes from one object to another, or in the case of a fast moving object may be used to catch the eyes up when the pursuit eye movements fall behind. Both eye movements are extremely complex, with latency periods before starting and in the case of saccadic eye movements there is some suppression of vision to prevent a visual blurring effect.
In Schizophrenia, it has been thought for a number of years that abnormal pursuit eye movements may be genetically related. Some studies have shown pursuit eye movements may be abnormal in children who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse. (HJ, Green MJ, Marsh PJ). This may indicate environmental causes instead of genetic.
Pupil dilation is generally interpreted as a sign of interest, arousal, fear, pain or anything that results in an increase in vigilance to the environment, due to stimulation from the sympathetic part of our nervous system. The response of the pupil to constrict is inhibited during these situations, further making the dilation response more marked. This is the system that is activated when the so called fight or flight response is elicited by something in the environment. In the past that was considered the appropriate response to a saber tooth tiger about to have you for dinner. Today, many researchers are adding a third category of freeze, where an animal or person freezes in place as if to remain hidden and unnoticed from any threat. The amygdala, a small area of the brain that responds to primitive emotions, has been shown to result in pupil dilation when stimulated. A study by Demos, K E (KE); Kelley, W M (WM); Ryan, S L (SL); Davis, F C (FC); Whalen, P J (PJ); also provided evidence that if you view dilated pupils it stimulates your amygdala.
Children who have been abused have over stimulation of the amygdala that often becomes a permanent state and often live in a state of hypervigilence. As a result of living in an unpredictable environment that is often harmful they need to be constantly alert for signs of danger. Some characteristic vision behaviors are often seen.
Eye movements frequently appear darting and saccadic movements are more common. Presumably this is constant scanning of the environment for danger in preparation for fight or flight from the danger. This could be the cause of poor perceived pursuits eye movements or result in a lack of their proper development. Sometimes the freeze response, or being completely still with few eye movements, results in a frozen eye posture. This occurs in an attempt to remain hidden similar to the behavior a deer or rabbit can exhibit when approached. Pupillary dilation is also seen as fear and arousal are at a high level. Dilation of the pupils allows greater activation of peripheral vision and detection of motion. This is a function of the magnocellular visual pathway. Although only about ten percent of the nerve fibers of the eye are in this pathway, it passes information very rapidly and allows a rapid response to approaching threat changes in the environment. Detailed visual information is passed though a slower pathway. Sometimes victims of abuse will use a direct staring behavior as an aggressive challenge to try and ward of an attack. This is the opposite of the freeze behavior when there is an avoidance of eye contact. Often this avoidance of eye contact becomes a habitual behavior seen most of the time. It can be misinterpreted as deceitful or lying when in fact it as an learned behavior from the past to avoid harm. Pupil constriction increases depth of field and may clear central focus at the cost of peripheral awareness. It is often interpreted as a sign of disinterest, but could also be utilized to search for distant threats. Some people have reported pupil constriction preceding anxiety attacks. Since anxiety and fear are not necessarily the same emotion this could occur in select individuals.
Children who have been abused may show signs of severe post traumatic stress disorder. There can present at times as a glazed, dilated appearance of the eyes, with minimal movement and not focused in the present, often gazing at of into the distance. They do not exhibit normal behaviors such as turning towards you when spoken to or reflexive moments to sound or motion. Frequently this is a sign of a
Other manifestation of abuse may include reduced visual acuity, tunnel vision, reductions in depth perception, and reduced color vision. These have different characteristics than the same problems caused by eye diseases. They can also be the result of stress, not abuse.
No specific visual behavior indicates abuse. Pupil size varies between individuals. Many people avoid eye contact that are shy. Children are often spacey and gaze off into space with a tremendous capacity to tune adults out.
Adding to the mystery, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing also referred to as EMDR is a method of therapy utilizing eye movements to treat post traumatic stress syndrome.
Some day there may be a viable eye test for psychological disorders. Unless that happen, it is important to consult a therapist experienced in victims of abuse if you notice some of these types of changes in eye behavior accompanying alterations in mood and other social changes. Especially important are clear changes around specific people or situations as triggers.