Just before his now legendary fight with George Foreman in 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, Muhammad Ali famously quipped “His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.” He was grandstanding, as he always did before a fight but in his inimitable way he was also hitting the nail on the head.
Sight may be a mechanical process where light (and data) is captured by the lens of the eye and transmitted to the brain but it is in the brain that it is all processed in a way that makes sense to our conscious self. This means that counter to any intuitive understanding we may have of how vision works we can train ourselves to actually see better than we currently do.
The answer to the question lies in the mechanics of vision, so, we’ll begin with that first. Eyesight, from a purely mechanical point of view, is made up of three very specific capabilities. The healthy eye’s lens is able to focus so that light coming from a particular point in space is captured with a high degree of accuracy and this allows us to see people and things. It’s what we call visual acuity and it’s measured in the conventional 20/20 measure of being able to see at 20ft what most people see at 20ft, about which we will also talk a little further down.
This mechanistic approach to vision shows us that healthy eyesight is made up of three key elements:
- Focus – the ability to focus upon objects that are near or objects that are far.
- Object recognition – the ability to understand what it is that we are actually seeing, just by looking at it.
- Contrast – the ability to differentiate quickly between different shades of color, meaning that we recognize objects that are far or belong in complex groups that may be moving or displaying lots of different color.
What is interesting here is that a healthy eye that captures light may still fail to recognize objects or experience a sharp enough contrast between shades to actually see what it is that it is looking at. The paradox of vision is that the brain fills in what the eye doesn’t see to the point that it creates an expected as opposed to a real representation of the world around us. Ali’s comment makes sense, in this context, because in the pressure of a world-class title boxing fight, a brain that hasn’t been hardened to take fatigue, accept pain, deal with and process the unexpected and discount the subterfuges thrown by an opponent’s bob and weave, will not see a possible target when it is presented nor process an incoming blow that should be avoided, quickly enough to avoid it.
Vision is Mental
The reasoning goes that if vision is mental then it is subject to the neuroplasticity of the brain which means it can be improved. This is where the real question of “How?” comes in and we look at the true meaning of the standard 20/20 eye test. What we use today to measure eyesight acuity was developed experientially by Dutch ophthalmologist Herman Snellen in 1862. Dr Snellen arrived at the 20/20 norm for good eyesight using, as a primary basis, the visual acuity of one of his assistants who was a good hunter. Hunters, generally, have better eyesight because part of vision is adaptive and hunting requires the ability to see far and see clearly (differentiate between contrasting shades of color).
As one study noted “People living in tribal societies often have exceptional eyesight because their lifestyle require them to look at the distance while hunting or looking after cattle. The Masai tribesmen in Kenya can see what someone is doing 1,5 kilometres away.”
If vision is mental then it depends upon neuronal connections to function properly and neuronal connections are subject to atrophy when they’re not used. Sure enough, a team of psychologists published a study in Current Biology which showed that baseball players at the University of California, Riverside, were able to improve by 30 percent their reading of eye charts, as well as their batting averages, after completing more than two dozen 25-minute vision training sessions using a computer program. Players in a control group who didn’t receive the training did not show similar improvement.
Visual acuity and sports performance is something that came up consistently as I wrote The Sniper Mind which begs the question of whether all this is correlation or causation. Do elite athletes have better vision than their less successful counterparts that makes them better athletes or do elite athletes develop better vision as a result of the training and focus they put themselves through?
A clue to this is given perhaps by another practice baseball players and elite athletes engage in which is the wearing of black marks under their eyes (known as Eye Black). The practice was begun by the legendary Babe Ruth whose eyesight was tested in 1921 by Columbia University researchers who’d found that the Yankee slugger's eyes worked about 12% faster than those of an average person.
The belief behind Eye Black is that skin is reflective and the glare it throws up as it reflects back light striking the area under the eyes makes vision more difficult in the same way that light pollution in big cities occludes the night sky and makes many less bright stars invisible.
"The retina, which contains 150 million light-sensitive rod and cone cells, is actually an outgrowth of the brain."
It wasn’t until recently however that science caught up with all this and started to look analytically at why placing a non-reflective strip of tape or make-up, under the eyes helps improve eyesight. The findings corroborate the improvement, apparently, but not for the reasons everyone thought.
The studies found that while there is no discernible difference in the glare produced by the skin around the eye with or without Eye Black, it does improve the ability to spot contrasts. This allows the brain to process things just a little bit faster. The idea behind all this is that visual sensory neurons that are repeatedly activated increase their ability to send electrical signals from one cell to another across connecting synapses. This improves the processing of visual information received by the brain. Improved processing of visual information changes perception. It dictates differently what is possible and what isn’t. A changed perception creates a different reality. The perceived reality guides choices. This, then, changes athletic performance.
The process stands true for anyone, everyone, from baseball players to pilots and, obviously, snipers. It also affects businessmen.
Visual Acuity And Decision Making
The retina, which contains 150 million light-sensitive rod and cone cells, is actually an outgrowth of the brain. In the brain itself, neurons devoted to visual processing number in the hundreds of millions and take up about 30 percent of the cortex. When our eyes are open, our vision accounts for two-thirds of the electrical activity of the brain, that’s a full 2 billion of the 3 billion firings per second, according to the finding of neuroanatomist R.S. Fixot published in a paper in 1957.
All the decision-making pathways in the brain run on information. Studies that show that paying attention changes the decision-making process by altering what is being perceived indicate that the way decisions are made when we have detailed visual information are similar to the way we make decisions when we don’t have visual data but we have a lot of other information to process.
In other words, the way we make decisions creates a neuronal pattern that is applied to every decision we make and it is a process shaped by our habitual behavior when we look around. Risk-takers who make the proverbial jump without sufficient information remain risk-takers irrespective of how much information they are given at a later stage. Their brains don’t analyze things in detail because they habitually don’t. Meticulous decision-makers who pay careful attention to every detail before they make a decision continue to do so even when the information they have is less than they are used to.
The eyes may train the mind but it is the mind that makes clever decisions possible and it is the mind that creates vision. Learning to truly see (which means you teach yourself to observe) then becomes the first step towards taking charge of every situation in our life.
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