Skills: How to Hone Your Peripheral Vision

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Outside magazine, July 1995

Skills: How to Hone Your Peripheral Vision
By Sandy Blakeslee

As a child, Bill Bradley, U.S. senator from New Jersey and former New York Knicks star forward, would walk down the streets of his hometown, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead while trying to identify objects in store windows. He recalls, “I’d say to myself, I can see that red blouse. I can see those black shoes.”

Bradley’s goal was to develop his peripheral vision. By “seeing” out of the corners of his eyes, he learned to visualize his environment with a part of the brain not often accessible to our conscious side, scanning all the possible implications for any particular action.

Even if your political or athletic aspirations aren’t as lofty as Bradley’s, developing your peripheral vision may give you the performance advantage you need, whether you’re on a fast mountain-bike descent or trying to monitor the rest of the running field. “We see a lot of things out there that we’re not aware of,” says Christof Koch, professor of computation and neural
systems at the California Institute of Technology. As you move your body rapidly through space, your brain needs to assess an enormous amount of information, Koch explains. Most of this is taken in by the fovea, a small area at the center of the retina that’s specialized for fine detail and color perception. But the rest of the retina is responsible for the periphery–the subtle
motions and shadows that are processed unconsciously. The key to moving more quickly and confidently might be to train yourself to react to what you see in the peripheral field.

You can hone your peripheral vision with the exercises that Bradley did as a kid. Or you can try to compensate for starting later in life by spending $10 for a device used in a process called nightwalking. Developed by an unlikely pair in the field of performance physiology–an art-gallery owner and a psychotherapist based in Taos, New Mexico–nightwalking works by distracting
your foveal vision, so that your brain has to rely solely on peripheral vision to get you around. The Taos twosome make this possible with their nightwalking rod, a nine-inch-long tube that attaches to the brim of a baseball cap and glows faintly in the dark. In short, the trainee stares at the tube and tries to walk over rough terrain on a moonless night, “sensing” any

While nightwalking hasn’t been scientifically validated, Koch tried it recently and was impressed. “After about an hour, I managed to walk at a brisk pace on a canyon floor in near darkness,” he says. “This suggests that the peripheral parts of our visual field can dictate our immediate responses.”

Not everyone will be able to access as much as of the periphery as Senator Bradley, however. While the average person can see 50 degrees above the horizontal, Bradley can see 70 degrees upward–so no Republican or rebound goes unnoticed.

For more information on nightwalking, or to order a rod, contact Steve Parks and Nelson Zink, 106 Dona Luz, Taos, NM 87571; 505-751-1588.