By wolfgang langewiesche
A Bit of light comes into the eye an electric impulse flits through the brain and we “see.” Science doesn’t really know, what light is or what the mind is but much is now known about the miracle of seeing. Neurologists have shown how the eye registers pictures of objects and how the brain electrically interprets the pictures. Psychologists have demonstrated that our past experiences, our expectations and our emotions color everything we see, so that it’s actually the I behind our eye that sees. Much of this knowledge is new, and it carries a great idea: we can learn to use our eyes more effectively than we do. We can see more.
Look at something close by, and pick out the smallest detail you can see. Then turn a strong light on it: new smaller detail appears. The reason? The eye is like a camera- a dark chamber with a lens in front and a light-sensitive film in back (the retina). At the center of the retina we have a tiny spot of superfine grain, where the nerve-ends are crowded closely together. We do our hard, attentive looking with that sharp-seeing spot. But the spot is just like fine-grain film in a camera; it needs more light.
Just knowing about this is helpful. Usually for instance you fix the lights before you begin to read. But when you start reading, you use your fine-grain spot and the light is no longer good enough. Unconsciously, you bring your paper closer to the eye. Result: eyestrain. You should use more light, instead.
When you look at something you don’t stare. The eye is sweeping, scanning all the time, much as a man might shine a flashlight around a strange garden, lighting up object after object. The eye takes ten separate looks a second; the mind pulls them together into a picture. These movements of the eye are very small, very quick, like vibrations. If looking made a noise, it would be a buzz.
This rapid wiggling is necessary because of the way nerves work. Every impression wears off. You don’t hear a steady noise, but you wake up when it stops. Change is what we notice. If you stare at one point long enough, you quit seeing it. To see well, the eye must keep moving.
Movies made of the eyes of a person driving a car, however, show that as speed picks up, the eye moves less and less. The eye need not sweep the scene, because the scene sweeps the eye. From a moving car, everything moves in a fashion which E.s> Calvert, a British scientist, once called the “streamer pattern.” For example, a tree on the right-hand side of the road ahead of you first starts drifting a little to the right, then gets bigger and starts moving, and finally hurtles by. The same on the left. The only place that doesn’t move is straight ahead, the bulls-eye. That only gets bigger.
Calvert said we sense our motion not straight ahead, where we are looking. We do our driving with the corners of our eyes. The streamer pattern is more lively there. Cut off that part of the driver’s vision, and he becomes uncertain.
Calvert used this knowledge in designing the lighting system for London Airport in the 1950s. pilots had been complaining for years that the approach lane and runway were poorly marked at most airports. Calvert, at London Airport, put additional lights way out to the right and left of the pilot’s path, out of his direct vision. It did the trick.
Some day we may use ideas to make our highways safer. The modern highway-broad, smooth, straight, with no trees, poles, houses close to it-makes a weak streamer pattern. It is dangerous because it kills our sense of motions. Suppose you are driving on a long, straight road, and far ahead is a car. If that car is stopped or going very slowly, your eye gives you almost no warning. The car is the dead spot of the streamer pattern, straight ahead. Then, all of a sudden it gets very big very fast and makes a lunge at you. This is why there are so many rear-end collisions.
Here’s an odd thing. We can see better what we already have seen before. In spotting game from an airplane, for instance, the trick is to see your first elephant, or moose or whatnot. Patterns of things seen in the past hook up with incoming images so that the mind recognizes them.
In seeing, therefore, our previous experience enters in; we see what we look for. When a woman comes down the street, men notice her figure women notice her hat, and pickpockets notice her pocketbook.
In practical living it is the experienced eye, rather than the optically sharp eye that makes a go of things. Take sailing: the small boat skipper goes by special signs. In judging the boat’s speed. The skipper’s guest watches a few bubbles of foam that float on the water-and gets the speed right. The same is true in driving and in sports. You develop an eye for what counts, and quit wasting attention on what doesn’t.
One of the cleverest things the eye does is to show us depth. We have two eyes receiving two separate pictures; the brain fuses them into one picture and somehow senses this as depth. But having two eyes is not as important as we think. Wiley post, one of the great pilots of the ‘30s, had only one eye.
The fact is, our eyes have many ways of perceiving depth. For instance, motion shows depth. Move your head and things move. Nearby things move more; they seem to slide across distant things. The brain soon learns to understand that stationary objects are farther away- they are background. And since in practical living we don’t sit like status, but constantly move about we automatically use this trick. Try it. With one eye closed, head resting against something and steady, reaching for things is a little uncertain. Now move your head around as you reach. Your one eye operates okay.
The American Indian knew that. Swaying the head widely from side to side was an old scouting trick of his. It shows up things that, without such motion, would “blend into the background.” The other day I wanted to show a man a hornets’ nest. It was within ten feet of him, hanging on a branch, but he couldn’t see it. I said: “Move your head.” And he saw it. Sometimes this works in reverse. To see animals in the woods, for instance, try staring. This advice came from Col. Jim Corbett, a photographer of tigers in the wild. Staring makes everything fade out that doesn’t move. The any moving animal excites the eye. (in radar, the same idea is called the MTI the Moving target indicator. It shows up the moving targets better-simply by wiping off the screen anything that isn’t moving.) animals know this too. A buck at the edge of the woods stands motionless sometimes for minutes. This makes him harder to see. At the same time, it turns on his MTI!
We learn to sense in depth in still other ways. From long experience we assume that, of two houses, the one that looks smaller is farther away. Of two mountains, the blue one is more distant that the green one. Artists use these clues to show us deep space on flat canvas. Often we can improve our vision by limiting it. Artists, in preparing to paint squint to find a focal point. We can put this trick to profitable use: curl the index finger against the thumb until only a tiny opening is left and then look through the opening. You can read the finest type-even telephone books.
The twilight zone between mind and eye has been most deeply explored by the late Adelbert Ames Jr. who quit a law career to become an artist. He grew enthralled with the mind: how does the mind use the eye? One phase of Ames’ great work was the study of illusions. Princeton University built a small museum full of these.
A typical Ames demonstration is a room in which everything slopes: walls, ceiling floor. But all distortions are so calculated that, to the eye, they cancel each other out; the room looks, as you look in through a peephole, just like a normal four walk from one part of the room to another –and shrink to a dwarf before my eyes. The ceiling of the room was higher in his corner than it was where I was standing, and this made him seem shorter. What does it prove? It proves how heavily our experience influences our seeing. The eye really sees only patches of color and light the mind says what that is; and the mind has nothing to go on but past performance. Rooms are four-square; that had been 100 percent true in my experience. When Ittelson walked across the room, I was more willing to see him grow short than I was to see a room of such devilishly ingenious craziness.
In another distorted room that looked four-square, an imitation fly sat on the wall. Professor Ittelson gave me a stick and told me to swat the fly. I tried and missed. The distortion of the room threw off my aim. But after a few attempts I learned the motions it took and I hit the fly. Then something strange happened: I began to see the true shape of the room, in its full distortion! Nothing had changed optically. But my experience had changed. So a given shape my look different ways to different people depending on what experience they’ve had with it.
It tells us this: just looking is not enough. A little boy who touches everything he sees gets to know the world. A tourist traveling in foreign countries, on the other hand, too often sees only his own preconceptions. We should act like little boys and not tourists. After you’ve seen a thing, and made your guess as to its nature-test your guess. Get a different experience with it. Walk around it and see it from behind. Poke at it with a stick, smell it, heft it. “it,” whatever it is, may soon look completely different to you.
We all live in the self-constructed prison of our own experience. But the moment we realize that, we can walk right out.