Monday, February 05, 2007

Peripheral Vision

A few nights ago I had an experience that highlighted the difference between peripheral and core vision. I had a fire going in my fireplace and I was sitting with my back to it while watching a DVD on tv (“Beowulf and Grendel”, an excellent film of the Norse legend).

I was wearing a pair of glasses, and at some point I became aware of the reflection of the fire behind me in the corner of the lense, visible to my peripheral vision. I discovered if I shifted my eyes to look towards that reflection, it disappeared, but as soon as I looked straight ahead again, the flames were visible once more, so clearly that my attention was focused on them to where I had to pause the film.

Every time I tried to look directly at the reflection, it was gone. I looked away, it was there.

This highlighted several things I try to teach in my classes. First, there is a physical difference in the structures of the eye that specialize functionality in the field of vision, and second, that our mental filters selectively prioritize our awareness in this visual field. I sometimes ask my students to look in one direction and try to identify other things they see without moving their eyes, to expand their ability to bring things to awareness.

This reflection, however, surprised me in a couple of ways. I’ve always presumed that what is caught by our peripheral vision can be brought into greater focus by looking directly. Further, I’ve been taught that the rods of the outer lens are better at catching movement than close detail, and tend to be more oriented towards black and white than full color, which is a strength of the cones of the eye. However, I was shocked when I realized that I could see the reflection from the fireplace in full color and great detail in my peripheral vision, yet not at all when trying to view it directly.

This reminds me of when I first got glasses in my 20’s, how distracted I was initially by the refractions of light at night from streetlights and care. Eventually we become used to such things, and as we become inured our mind learns to selectively tune out such images until we no longer are aware of experiencing them. The leaping red and yellow flames, though, were larger and more dramatic than just dots from electric bulbs, and the fact that I was sitting still drew my attention to one spot more clearly than if I’d been moving around.

Various martial arts teach looking at different areas of the opponent’s body in a fight. Boxers, for instance, often watch the eyes. They aren’t concerned about being kicked, so keeping their vision high works for them. In Serrada we were taught to watch the center of the chest so we could monitor both hands and feet without having to move the eyes too much, highlighting the importance of peripheral vision in that art.

It’s been stated that we can see about 1000 details subconsciously while only being aware of 5-9 of them. This experience seems to validate that premise to some degree, since it was ONLY the peripheral vision that could see this at all.

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