Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Saturday, January 20, 2007day link 

 Learning to see
picture A number of years ago I was seeing a vision consultant regularly. I didn't know there were such a thing, but I was wearing glasses, and I didn't really like that I had to, so the idea appealed to me. Gloria Ginn was her name. Her methods was to a large degree based on the Bates Method.

My eye sight improved a great deal, and I basically haven't worn glasses since then, except for when driving or for watching TV or something like that. I didn't really keep up the exercises, so I'm somewhat in-between at this point, not having normal vision, but not feeling like wearing glasses. I've mentioned this before, but what I wanted to talk about is also the most interesting philosophical implications of these kinds of exercise.

Basically the idea is that if you have bad eyesight, most often it is not a matter of a physical defect, but, rather, it is a matter of bad mental habits. There are certain things one does when one has perfect eyesight which are more mental than physical.

The biggest thing one starts doing wrong is to focus too much and too long on too many things. One gets used to having a fixed focus, and one drops out everything else. Sitting in front of a computer at a fixed distance staring at little letters certainly doesn't help.

If one sees well, one sees the periphery. One is always aware of the periphery. And if one looks at something, it would more be a matter of letting one's attention drift towards it within the bigger picture that includes the periphery.

A continuous awareness of periphery means that you see what is going on. If you get stuck in points, you lose something. You get more stressed and fixed.

A philosophical thought here:

"You're in the periphery, not in the focus"

Yet our busy society tends to keep us occupied with focusing on lots of little important things all the time. You might not notice the forest if you're only dealing with a tree. A datum without context is not worth much.

Re-developing your sense of periphery, in thought and in vision, makes you more calm and relaxed and attentive.

The other problem with fixed focus is also that it is fixed and doesn't move. Natural eye sight moves all the time. Even when looking at one thing, the eyes of somebody with natural eye sight will continously scan back and forth over what you're looking at. You might be unconscious of that, but it is easy to observe on others. The eyes do little micro-movements, even if you're looking at something as small as one letter.

If somebody with natural eye sight shifts their eyes from one point to another, their eyes will sweep in a continous movement from one point to the other, seeing everything in-between. Somebody with bad eye sight will just flip from point A to point B without a sense of what happened in between. And if they try to sweep their eyes continously, they might get dizzy, or they might discover they can't. Somebody else observing you would notice that you just do several quick jumps, rather than a continous motion.

We might learn something like:

"The world is analog, not digital"

or, we could say that the world is in continous shades, rather than black and white. Not point A or point B, but a rainbow of continous steps in-between.

One can re-train that by looking at stuff while moving. There are many ways of doing that, like swinging one's head to side to side, or letting one's eye scan back and forth over something.

"Everything is continously in motion"

You might think of most things around you as stationary, static objects, and you don't notice at all that they move. That's entirely a mental trick. If somebody's standing at the other end of the room, their body is very small. If they walk towards you, their body gets bigger and bigger along the way. You hadn't noticed?

If you're standing in one place and you move just a few centimeters to the side, the perspective of everything in the room changes. It is kind of futile to think of the bookcase as some kind of theoretical static blueprint in your mind, because that's not what you see. You see lines and shades and shadows. And if you move a little bit, what you see will change. If you don't notice that, you're not really seeing.

A trick for practicing that is to pretend that you're standing still, even when you're in motion, and then imagine that it is everything else that is moving. Say you're driving a car. Imagine that what you're watching is a virtual reality display. The roadway is coming towards you. It is narrow far away and gets wider as it comes towards you. The lines in the road are doing that too, getting bigger as they get closer. Buildings and trees on the side of the road are smaller further away, and gets bigger as they get closer. And their perspective changes. If you drive by a tree with branches, or a light pole with a lamp, it will twist around itself as you pass it.

"You are still. The world is moving."

That's kind of deep. Maybe that's true. Instead of flickering around to and fro, how about I consider myself to be permanently stationary, right here in the middle of the universe, and everything else is moving around me?

Here's another trick: Try to see from behind your eyes. Like, from the back of your head, which is actually the location of the vision center in the brain. If you have attention on your eyes, you probably are straining them. If you can relax your eyes, but concentrate on what you actually are seeing, you'll see better, without effort.

The basic thing is to just pay attention. We're so used to replace what we actually are seeing with a mental shortcut. You think you've seen that wall a thousand times, so when you look at it your mind does something equivalent to replacing it with a label that says "wall". There's a wealth of perceptual information available from even the most boring wall. Perspective, patterns, coloring, shades. There are millions of points there, all a little different from one another. And it all changes if you move just a little bit. And it is different at different times, depending on the time of the day, the light conditions that day, etc.

"Pay attention!"

We're mis-using our minds. Abstract thinking can be a great thing. But it also gets used for replacing our richly detailed, constantly changing environment with little fixed simplified snapshots. And then we just see the snapshots, forgetting that they aren't the real thing. And then we wonder why we don't see so well. And then we use the same snapshots for thinking and for making decisions, wondering why we don't make good decisions. Because we aren't dealing with the world in front of us, that's why.

But your mind is necessary the other way too. In general, you can't see more than you can imagine. Paying attention to what is there, and being able to imagine what is there are kind of two sides of a similar phenomenon.

"You can only see what you can imagine"

If your mental picture is fuzzy, what you see with your eyes is likely to be fuzzy too. If you can't imagine seeing something sharply, you probably can't see it clearly with your eyes either. If there are no nuances in what you see in your minds eye, if it is just a clumsy cartoon, you probably don't see much better. There's a continous interaction between what you can imagine to see and what you see.

"There's always more there"

If you're actually seeing, there's always more you can see. Look at a tree. It isn't just "a tree". There are millions upon millions of things to say about it. There's no end to how well you can observe it. It is continously in motion, it has thousands of parts, many different shades, interesting patterns, perspectives, etc.

Doesn't mean you have to sit and stare at the tree all day. It goes for anything. You can always go deeper. You can always see more, if you actually are seeing. If you think you're all done after one glance, you probably just glanced at a fixed mental image. So, if you're stuck, look further.

Natural sight, just as natural thought, is fluid, always in motion. Everything it sees is unique and different, but at the same time continously connected with everything else. Everything is found within a bigger picture. In the bigger picture there might be parts you focus on and much more that is in the periphery. Most of the world is in the periphery. There's an infinity of things to see. To see them, you need to be ready to see them, and to look for them. Seeing, as thinking, is something you do, a skill, something that comes from inside, rather than something you receive from the outside.

You see?
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