03 June 2010

The Advantages of Using Peripheral Vision both Physically and Metaphorically


Unless there is something physically wrong with a person’s pair of eyes, his or her peripheral vision is – essentially – just about the same as everyone else’s. Yet we do refer to some people – especially in athletics – as having excellent peripheral vision. By inference, we deduce that there are those who do not.

Vision is, in its purest biological sense, the ability of these organs we call the eyes to detect forms before it that are essentially masses of atoms, whether these masses of atom are trees, human beings, edifices or other objects.

To detect these forms, the eyes depend on this intangible object that we call light, whether it is natural – as when emanating from the sun or the moon – or unnatural – as when it emanates from a fluorescent bulb. Without light, therefore, the massed atoms continue to exist; but they will not have forms.

It is not the eyes, per se, that see the massed atoms. Instead, electrodes carry the images detected by the eyes straight to the brain for the latter to interpret. In the absence of light, such as when the day has turned into night, there are no images to transmit. Hence, seeing is suspended.

If a person’s eyes are physically incapable of detecting light, or if the nerves used to transmit information to the brain are damaged, even in broad daylight, there will be no images for the brain to interpret. Then, we say that the person is blind.

Therefore, it goes without saying that seeing is really more a function of the brain than the eyes. Interpreting the millions of forms that can be encountered in what we call life is a process that begins soon after a person is born and will continue until that person closes his or her eyes for the final time.


Vision, in its most functional sense, therefore, is the ability of a person’s brain to interpet images detected by the eyes with the aid of light. Vision is direct if the brain focuses its attention only on the image or images that are directly in front of the eyes. The other images above, below and to either side of those that are in direct vision, these we refer to as in the peripheral vision.

In my years coaching the football team, there had been young players who had asked me how I seemed to be able to pick out teammates with pin-point passes when I did not even appear to have looked their way. The truth of the matter, I patiently explained to these boys, was that I had actually seen these teammates through the corners of my eyes – otherwise known as peripheral vision.

That is the reason, in team sports, why teammates wear the same color of playing kits in what we call uniforms. I did not have to see who it was that was in my peripheral vision. All I needed to see was the color of uniform that he was wearing. My brain instantly recognized that the form at the corner of my eye was a teammate rather than an opponent.

The key for every young athlete, therefore, is for his or her brain to learn early to recognize images that are not only within the direct line of vision, but also everything else that the eyes are able to pick out with their lenses. In a game such as football, in which 22 players mix it up in a limited area of playing space and each player only gets limited playing time with the ball, it goes without saying that the most successful ones are those who are able to see more of the game as it goes on.

These are the ones we say have excellent peripheral vision.

Beyond athletics, which in a manner of speaking is superficial to life, peripheral vision may mean the world in a life or death situation. A wildebeest in the plains of Africa may continue to graze, but it continues to make full use of its peripheral vision in determining that the pride of playful lions a few hundred yards away has not suddenly decided dinner time has arrived.

In World War II, Spitfire pilots of the Royal Air Force were known as the Swivelheads. Not only did their eyes alertly scan the skies directly in front of them; they increased their peripheral vision by continually turning their heads around to make sure that there were no Luftwaffe fighters on their tails. They looked out, up and down the cockpits as well, because an enterprising enemy pilot could be aiming straight at them directly from where they were blinded by the sunlight or below them where the fuselage of the planes obstructed vision.

Metaphorically, when related to life, the person with a greater peripheral vision is he who is able to see beyond the pains and troubles that life can bring by seeing how the rest of the world is coping. Perspective, thus, is what peripheral vision can give, whether to a player on the football pitch; a wildebeest in Africa; a pilot in a dogfight; or just you and I going through our daily lives.

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