Seeing the Forest and the Trees

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Originally appeared in
Earth Star Magazine June/July 2007
By Rosemary Gaddum Gordon, D.B.O., M.A.

For optimal sight, central and peripheral vision must be functioning simultaneously. We often strain our central vision and ignore the periphery when we over-focus and concentrate intensely. When we cannot see the forest for the trees, we’ve lost the big picture; we’ve shut out our peripheral vision. As you can tell from the language, this can be as much a mental restriction as a visual one. It is largely a question of awareness.

I suggest you do a few experiments to find out what you are doing. You can start right now as you read these words. Notice if you are aware of seeing whatever is around the page – the room, the trolley, people in the café. If you are not, then you are over-focusing and have lost the big picture. You can also explore this when working at the computer, reading a book or driving a car. How large a visual field do you have when you are busy living your life? What happens when you are driving or walking? Can you turn to speak with a friend while still seeing the road ahead?

As you attend to what you see peripherally you will notice that you don’t see the objects off to the side as well as you see what you are focusing on. Due to the anatomy of the eye, our peripheral vision is not as sharp as our central vision, and the more peripheral the object is, the less clearly we see it. This is normal.

Our central vision specializes in seeing color and detail, while our peripheral vision is sensitive to movement and small variations in light. It is responsible for our night vision. You can explore your visual field by extending your arms straight out from your shoulders while looking at something directly ahead of you and noticing if you can see your fingers. Now wiggle your fingers. Can you see them now? If you can’t, then bring your arms forwards a little, until you can see them. You will notice that it is easier to see them when they are moving. As we spend more time indoors, on computers or watching TV our potential visual field is frequently under used. As this under-use accumulates, the partnership between central and peripheral vision becomes unbalanced and both become diminished.

In order to rebalance this relationship we need to switch on the periphery again. As much as possible, we want to be aware of what we see off to the sides, above and below. Place interesting moving things in your peripheral field, such as a light-catching mobile in your cube, a birdfeeder near the window and a mirror where it will allow you to see people moving around.

At first it will seem very distracting, because you will want to look at those things centrally, the way you are used to. After a while you will find that you can still concentrate on your work and see what’s going on around you at the same time. You will no longer be lost in the details. You will be keeping everything in perspective, and seeing more comfortably and clearly.

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