June 29

The Use of the Eyes

by Jack Heggie

The author of a new book of visual training describes an exercise that may not only expand the range of your peripheral vision but uncannily, it may expand other senses as well.

The eyes are probably the most important and yet the least understood of man’s sensory organs. Consider the way that we test the use of the eyes by “reading the eye chart”:

If you can read the chart (that is, if, from a certain distance, you are able to recognize the familiar shapes of the letters on the chart), your eyes are all right. If not, off to the doctor for glasses. Of course, an orthodox eye-care professional will do a much more extensive test, but mostly he is testing your ability to read. Is that all there is to vision?

There is now some evidence that reading (that is, recognizing previously memorized shapes) is only a small part of what the eyes do and that, from the standpoint of good use of the body and mind, it is of lesser importance than the other functions of the eye.

What else do the eyes do? For many of our actions, the eye is the initiator of the action. In catching or hitting a ball, in walking through a room full of furniture, driving a car or flying a plane, skiing or doing one of the many martial arts, the body moves in response to visual cues. In fact, this function is so important that I believe that organizing the body for motion is the major function of the visual system.

There is considerable evidence that reading and this other use of the eyes are organized by different subsystems within the visual system. In rare cases of injury, it is possible for one subsystem to work when the other has been destroyed.

Dr. Karl Pribam, the Stanford neuropsychologist, describes cases of what he calls blindsight, where an individual with central nervous system injury cannot “see” an object (that is, he cannot name it) but can point to it. He calls this instrumental awareness as opposed to the kind of verbal awareness that allows us to read.

Consider two interesting uses of the eyes that most of us have experienced, but few are clearly aware of:

If you have ever jogged on city streets, you have almost certainly experienced the “change step” that the body seems to do almost automatically when approaching a curb. Somehow, at about 10 feet from the curb, the eyes judge if the feet will be positioned correctly to step up onto the curb; and, if not, the legs do a quick half step to achieve the correct positioning. We all do this without thinking, but if you pay careful attention, you can catch yourself doing it. Also, if you have ever ridden a horse on rough terrain, you will have felt the horse do this same kind of “change step” upon approaching an obstacle.

For another example, think about walking into a room full of furniture: With a glance, our eyes take in the disposition of the furniture, and then we walk about without bumping into anything. This is a very different use of the eyes from what we do when we read.

This other use of the eyes is of great importance for individual well-being and good overall use of the body and mind, but it is practically unrecognized in our society. Reading is considered to be so important — indeed, written information is the foundation of our culture — that the instrumental use of the eyes is virtually ignored. If vision is not good (that is if we cannot read the eye chart), we wear glasses to be able to read better, but this severely compromises our instrumental vision.

As we will see later, learning to read without knowledge of this dual function of the eye can lead to a blocking off of this dual function of the peripheral vision and a consequent lessening of the ability to move in response to visual cues. A lot of our ability to move, plus our ability to react to other sensory input, suffers as a result.

If we are unable to read because of poor eyesight, we can always get glasses. But what about improving the instrumental use of the eyes? If we have difficulty catching a baseball, or hitting a tennis ball, or if we continuously bump into furniture, what are we to do? Glasses that allow us to read actually make objects appear closer than they really are and interfere with instrumental vision, although the vast human capacity for learning and adaptation enables us to deal with this more or less well.

Here is a simple, but surprisingly effective, exercise which draws on insights and techniques from the Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® system and the Bates method of eye exercises and which will do much to improve the instrumental use of the eyes.

To begin with, if you wear glasses or contacts, take them off. Then, determine your dominant eye. Hold your right thumb out at arm’s length and sight over it at some object that is at least 10 feet away. Next, close and open one eye, and then the other. When you open and close the dominant eye: the thumb appears to stand still. When you open and close the other eye, the thumb will appear to jump to one side, out of line with the target object.

Most people who are right-handed are also right-eyed, that is, the right eye is used to aim a rifle or to look through a telescope. Also, most left-handers are also left-eyed. If your dominant hand and eye are on opposite sides of your body, you are said to be cross-dominant.

To begin the exercise, lie on your back, with knees bent and with both feet standing on the floor, if you find this comfortable. Close your eyes and, with the palm of each hand, cover each eye, shutting out all the light. Experiment with the placement of the hands a little. If you place the little finger side of the hands flush up against the nose, with the first joint of the finger (where the finger joins the hand) just at the bridge of the nose, and let the tips of the fingers overlap on the forehead a little, you will find that the hands fit against the face as if these two parts of the body were made to do this.

Take a few minutes and notice what you see with each eye — or rather, what you don’t see since there is no light coming into the eyes. In particular, compare the left and the right visual fields. Do they extend to the sides an equal amount? How about up and down? Are the two visual fields equally black?

Now, stand up facing a wall about 10 feet away, and close the nondominant eye, or cover it with an eye patch. Begin to turn the entire body left and right with an easy twisting motion. As you turn, imagine that there is something to the left side that you wish to see, then to the right, then left, and so on. Turn your eye to the side and let the body follow, so that the eye leads the motion. Continue to do this, and while paying attention to the visual field, scan your body with your attention. Begin at your feet, noticing how the pressure shifts left and right as you turn: then notice your ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, spine, chest, shoulders, head, and eyes. Does the shift of attention change the motion at all? Take three or four minutes to do this.

Now, shift all of your weight onto your right foot, and continue turning left and right, letting the eye lead the motion. Again scan your body, feet to head while noticing what you see. After several minutes, shift your weight onto your left foot, and repeat.

Continue to turn left and right, and now shift your weight onto your left foot as you turn left and onto your right foot as you turn right. Then, after a few minutes of this, reverse the weight shift so that your weight goes onto your right foot as you turn left and onto your left foot as you turn right. Remember to notice what you see as you turn and to let the eye lead the motion. Stop and rest for a minute.

Now, find an object right in front of yourself at eye level, about 10 feet away. A colored thumbtack stuck in the wall is ideal. Continue to turn left and right, as before, but make this change: fix your eye on the target object to that the eye remains still in space. This requirement of keeping the eye fixed on the target will limit the ability of the head and body to turn.

Notice how the eye stands still, and the head turns around it — just the opposite of the way that the head and eye usually move. Continue to turn left and right; and, as you turn, begin to pick out objects at the extreme left and right, and top and bottom, of your visual field. The eye remains fixed on the target as you do this. You should find that, after a few minutes, you can see quite a few objects without making out details. Continue to turn left and right, noticing your entire visual field, and scan your body, feet to head, as before. You may find that it is tricky to pay attention to bodily sensations and visual input simultaneously at first, but if you persist without straining, it will become easy. What else can you see as you turn? How about your nose?

Continue this motion and shift your weight to your right foot, as before, for a few minutes, and then to your left foot. Then, shift to the right as you swing right, and to the left, as you swing left. Finally, shift your weight right as you swing left, and left as you swing right, all the while keeping the eye fixed on the target and scanning the body with your attention.

Notice how this kind of peculiar motion allows you to move the eye muscles and the rest of the body, while at the same time maintaining a constant visual input. This allows you to check and improve the use of the peripheral vision while moving. You will find that this is a very different proposition from a static check, which you can do by having someone wave a light or colored object off to one side while you stand still and look straight ahead.

Now, release the eye and swing left and right in the easiest way, as in the beginning. Notice how the turning angle of the body has increased. Can you feel just what has changed in your body to enable it to turn further without more effort? Again, stop and rest briefly.

Resume turning left and right, but now fix both the head and eye on the target. The head and eye remain fixed in space, and the body turns left and right below them. Again, pay attention to the entire visual field, picking out objects at the extreme edge, and slowly scan your body. After a few minutes shift your weight to your right foot, then to your let foot, and then left and right in the two ways that you have learned.

If you pay careful attention to yourself, you may be able to discover an interesting correlation between your awareness of your peripheral visual field and something that goes on in your mind. What happens when you forget about the peripheral visual field, and then when you remember to pay attention to it again? Can you notice any change in your hearing when you do this?

Release the head and eyes, and let everything turn left and right, as before. Notice how the turning angle has increased even more.

Lie on your back, close your eyes, and cover them with your palms, as before. Compare the left and right visual fields and notice the big difference in your lidded vision wit the eye that was open, and your lidded vision with the eye that was closed or covered. Which eye feels nicer? Open your eyes and look around. What do you see?

Now stand up, close (or cover) the dominant eye, and go through the whole exercise again, from the beginning. Try to time the motions so that the whole thing takes about 45 minutes to an hour.

When you are finished, stand up and look around. Pay attention not only to what you see, but also to the sensation in the eyes themselves, and to the muscles in the face just around the eyes. Look in the mirror. How does your face look?

If you wear glasses or contact, put them on and again check the sensation around the eyes. How does it feel now?

Think about a small child learning to read. His parents, or teachers, have told him that this is something that he should learn to do, and probably his natural curiosity is piqued. Adults spend many hours reading books, magazines, and newspapers; they come away with strange stories &mdash, and spend more hours talking among themselves about what they have read. How fascinating it must be to be able to read!

Book in hand, the child begins to try to associate the unfamiliar shapes of the letters with certain sounds. It’s not so easy, and he concentrates, focusing all of his attention on the letters, blotting out all of the interfering peripheral visual sensations, sounds, and feelings….

Being able to concentrate like this is an important skill, but it is possible to become stuck, with the whole attention narrowed down to a point, and to forget that it can be opened up. One mechanism for narrowing the attention is shutting down the peripheral vision, and this can be associated with shutting out sounds and bodily sensations also. Thus, if you pay careful attention in the exercise above, you may be able to notice that your hearing “opens up” when you become aware of your peripheral vision.

Once you begin to get a feeling for this improved use of the eyes, you can try it in a variety of situations — when signing a check, going for a walk, at a movie, or in a crowded restaurant. The effect can be startling.

Eventually, if you are active in a sport, you will begin to find that you can carry the improved use of the eyes there also. Many people come to associate the idea of concentration, or “trying to concentrate” with this narrowing of the visual attention: on the sports field and while “trying to concentrate on the game,” they shut off much of their sensory input — and, in particular, the peripheral visual field which is the part of vision that seems to be most concerned with movement. The harder they try, the more they restrict their sensory input, and the worse their performance becomes. It is a frustrating situation, to say the least.

However, once you become clearly aware of the feel of this construction and how if affects your life, it’s not so difficult to begin to undo it, a little at a time. The rewards in improved vision, ease of movement, and general well-being are surely worth it.


eye, eye-hand, Eyes, Jack Heggie, vision

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