Special report on
PERIPHERAL VISION
Football
USE IT or LOSE IT

If you only use your central vision, the rest of your visual circuitry will begin to go dormant

by Frank Forencich

Peripheral Awareness.
The ability to know what's happening on either side of you without turning your head.

Sports Performance Benefits.
Improves reaction speed, anticipation, field awareness, team play, and creativity.


When I first started training in martial arts, I got hit a lot. Being a raw beginner, I naively assumed that by watching my opponent's hands and feet, I'd be able to track their path and get out of the way. Imagine my surprise when I was immediately pummeled. The more I looked at my opponent's hands and feet, the more completely I was defeated. Fortunately, I was saved by a friendly black belt who recognized the error of my method and took me aside. "Use your peripheral vision," he said. "It's much better at picking up movement. More rods, fewer cones. Relax your eyes and look a few degrees off target. You won't get hit so often." There are many sports that rely on peripheral visual skills. Whether it's a running back weaving through tacklers or a pitcher trying to pick a runner off first base, peripheral vision often makes the difference between average performance and excellence.

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Nevertheless, there's a lot more to peripheral vision than athletic performance. A quick look at the structure of the eye bears this out. Each fovea or focusing point on the retina is only about the size of the head of a pin. This means that only about a thousandth of the entire visual field is in sharp focus at any given moment. The remainder is given over to motion detection and low-light vision. Obviously, peripheral vision must be important to our survival.

Evolutionary survival tool

Primal humans. It's easy to understand why peripheral vision would have been preserved in human evolution. As a prey species, humans have long had an urgent need to look around their world and monitor the periphery. Survival in a mosaic grassland would have required a comprehensive, wide-angle visual scan.

Dangers were everywhere; left or right, above or below, in front or behind. If you focused in one place for too long, you'd become vulnerable to attack from another direction. Ideally, you'd have two overlapping sensibilities; one to focus on the center of attention, another to monitor the neighborhood.

Given the demands of their environment, we can assume that primal humans used their vision in a comprehensive manner, a rough balance between peripheral and focused vision. They focused on objects of attention of course, but they also kept a broad scan going. They concentrated on food, friends and other curiosities, but they always maintained peripheral sensitivity. This is the default use of vision, the natural use of the human eye.

Modern tunnel vision. Peripheral vision played a pivotal role in human survival for millions of years, but things began to change with the age of agriculture. As we gained an advantage over predators, our need to monitor the periphery became less urgent. We created an increasing number of objects, tools and symbols that held our interest in central vision. Stone tools, then knives, writing implements, an alphabet, then books; all of these narrowed our vision and shrank our sense of periphery.

This might have been tolerable enough, but our visual field narrowed still further with the invention of television and computers in the 20th century. Now, many of us are committed to a single-point visual focus through most of our waking hours. As we spend our days reading, scrolling, focusing and clicking, our peripheral vision becomes increasingly irrelevant and atrophied.

Carrels and cubicles. Many devices have been created to eliminate peripheral sensation. The earliest was the library carrel. The carrel helps us to read more effectively by limiting outside distraction and cutting out the periphery. Later, we took the carrel to the next level with the invention of the cubicle, the notorious human pigeon-hole of a workplace.

Carrels and cubicles are profoundly double-edged; they succeed and fail by the same token. By eliminating our sense of periphery, they funnel our attention onto single points, allowing us to bring more of our intelligence to bear on the matter at hand. This allows us to push our interests forward and to go deeper into study.

Unfortunately, this process is completely alien to our bodies. Carrels and cubicles create a narrowrama that shuts out everything that's more than a few degrees to either side. By eliminating the periphery from our experience, they introduce an artificial conflict into our experience. Our primal bodies want to look around and scan the neighborhood for threats, but the walls won't let us do it.

Atrophy of Peripheral Vision

As athletes, we can think about our visual field in the same way that we think about biomechanical range of motion. Modern athletic trainers make sure that their clients work their limbs and joints through complete ranges of flexion, extension and rotation. This makes sense; for if you only use a small percentage of your range, the unused portion will begin to atrophy. Muscles may shorten, cartilage will go unlubricated and neurons will go on vacation.

But what are the consequences of using a limited fraction of visual range? What if we go through life looking directly at objects, tightly focused on one thing at a time, never allowing sensation of the surrounding field? This is the rough equivalent of habitually bending your knees through a five degree arc of movement. We would assume that such restricted movement practices would ultimately lead to poor function, possibly even pain and disability. Can we assume similar consequences for a failure to use a full range of vision?

Stop and sniff the periphery

Hotair Balloon
The answers to these questions are largely unknown. We haven't even mapped the neural connections between the peripheral retina and the deep brain, much less conducted large-scale research on peripheral deprivation. Nevertheless, it's safe to assume that our visual capabilities follow the familiar "use it or lose it" pattern that we see so clearly in the musculoskeletal system. In other words, if we only use one part of our visual field, the rest of our visual circuitry will begin to go dormant.

Individual and Team Play

The atrophy of peripheral vision is sure to have consequences, not just in our ability to detect the movement of predators in our environment or players on the open field, but also in the way we think and respond to the world around us. As we focus in tighter and tighter on individual skills, we become progressively more ignorant of context and environment. We become adept at sport specific skills, but we become blind to relationship and team concepts.

It may just be that the real significance of peripheral vision is that it tells us about context, relationship and the environment that surrounds any particular thing. Peripheral vision gives us a sense of place and a means by which we can integrate our skills into a larger whole.

Focused vision can give us isolated production, performance, ideas and payoffs, but peripheral vision serves as a counterweight, forcing us to connect to broader goals and objectives. Central vision can give us expertise, skill and execution, but peripheral vision can keep it all in perspective and proportion.

Intelligence and Creativity

It's not just our eyes that are at stake. Long-term over use of focused vision, coupled with atrophy of peripheral sensation, will lead to extensive re-wiring of the brain. We can even speculate on a possible link between balanced vision and intelligence. Chronic, tightly focused vision can do amazing things, but it only taps a fraction of our visual-cognitive capability. Monotonous visual inputs may very well lead to static, stereotyped thinking.

In contrast, a balance of focused and peripheral vision keeps the stimulation moving and taps a far greater percentage of our processing power. Just as chronic overuse of central vision may limit intelligence, active stimulation of our panoramic vision may actually increase it. The message: dumb yourself down with chronic centrally-focused vision; smarten yourself up by relaxing your eyes and letting the periphery in.

Recommendations

Given what we know about peripheral vision and its importance in our lives, we start looking for ways to bring our vision back into balance. How can we increase our peripheral sensitivity and compensate for our chronically-focused central attention?

Antidote #1 Open field drills. When training or practicing, look for opportunities to use the open field and challenge the athlete's lateral vision and blind spots.

Effective drills include the usual favorites such as open field running with the football or soccer ball, and open court dribbling with the basketball.

Coaches can also adapt traditional drills to promote peripheral awareness. Instead of giving this precious experience to only a few specialists such as running backs and point guards, give every player a chance to work the open field or court.

You may also want to invent your own exercises that challenge awareness at the periphery. A simple game of tag is a good place to start.

Antidote # 2 Wide angle view. The literal exercise of peripheral vision on the playing field is a good first step, but we can do more. Start by deliberately seeking out panoramic views. Make a conscious effort to get your body and your mind out of the cubicle. Climb up on rooftops, hilltops and mountain summits. Go up in light aircraft or hot air balloon when you get the chance. Put a wide angle lens on your camera and shoot the big picture.

Antidote #3 Think big. You'll also want to seek out some intellectual panoramas. Give your favorite routine a rest and turn instead to the broad view. Look for interdisciplinary activities and integrative approaches that knit the specializations together into a larger whole.

If we talked to the artists, they would encourage us to use our peripheral sensation in this way:

  • Get your eyes off of objects; don't look so directly at things.
  • Allow peripheral input to flood your retina.
  • Stop and sniff the periphery.
  • Exercise your peripheral touch and peripheral hearing.
  • Don't focus so intently on the object in question.
  • Give it a glancing look and let the periphery come into its own.

    Frank Forencich earned a bachelor's degree in human biology and neuroscience at Stanford University and has spent more than 20 years studying evolution and human movement. Frank holds black belt rankings in karate and aikido. He currently teaches physical training in Seattle, Washington. Frank is the author of Exuberant Animal: The power of health, play and joyful movement (available from authorhouse.com).