Is Visual Acuity Static or Dynamic … and Where Are My Keys?

Most people have encountered that awkward moment when we go to look for something such as our keys, remote control, hat, shoes, or even a pen we were only using a few seconds earlier – and it’s gone! Are objects lost to us every day simply because of memory loss or a failure in our visual proficiency? Or, is it possible that there is a more reasonable, underlying factor? With all of our knowledge about vision and how the mind works, there are still many mysteries that continue to remain unsolved. What if the mystery of sight was not so mysterious after all and what you see may not actually be what’s right in front of you?

If you’re a fan of the National Geographic Channel show, “Brain Games“, hosted by Jason Silva, you may have seen the episode on peripheral vision and how and why our brain centers its focus on specific points straight ahead. This occurs in order to minimize the amount of incoming information because frankly, there’s too much data around us for our minds to process. With all of the incredible functionality of the human brain, there is still a limit. From the huge range of colors to constantly moving objects, the amount of information to process is vast:

The Visible Spectrum
The Visible Spectrum

The human eye is designed at its optimum to take in at least 7,000,000 colors. There are, of course, a lot more colors created by combinations, overlays, shading and other factors. Next, consider that the number and variation of shapes in our world are almost infinite; when you multiply the potential variations of shapes to the number of color variations, it’s no wonder that our vision can be easily overwhelmed. This is when our brain uses substitution.

One of the most unique aspects of how we see color is that our brains can “fill-in” colors that don’t exist. After images are a perfect example of how our minds can substitute the colors we see – when there are no colors at all. This is the first step in understanding vision – not everything we see is what’s in front of us, but rather, what our mind creates.

Mental Imaging
Mental Imaging

Have you ever closed your eyes and “pictured” something from your memories, such as a person or a place? Can you get a visual image in your head that is as clear and concise as if you were actually looking at it right in front of you? Mental imaging is the technique whereby human beings can can visually “see” images in their head. Whether we do this consciously or as an effect of something else, like a dream, one thing is certain – the way we view the world around us is as easily skewed by our own thoughts as if we didn’t see at all!

This brings us to the question – is vision static, or dynamic? Ever bump your toe into a table leg or other object – and then do it again in exactly the same place as before? This is beyond frustrating, so why do we do that? Ever set your keys down, search for them (until you are absolutely sure that you’ve searched everywhere), only to later find them right where you were previously searching (out in the open)? How is it that magicians can so easily subvert our attention and make objects appear and disappear right in front of our very eyes? Truth is, the hand is not quicker than the eye. In fact, our brains dedicate a large portion of its functionality to vision – and we can see fast – very fast! Yet, not everything we see may be what’s directly in front of us. Visual Reference In MotionVisual Reference In Motion

Consider the above picture. A circle is moving between points A and E. While we know the circle is moving and may watch it move by turning our head or rotating our eyes, is it necessary to see the circle at each step in its progress? After all, the circle is unchanging and we can easily recreate that image in our minds. Therefore, in order to cut down on the energy required to see the circle, our brains will sometimes fill in the parts between A and B. This happens all the time and is seen in optical illusions (that appear to move), when trying to watch a ball fly through the air in sports games, and when watching a magician seemingly make an object disappear.

For example, consider the movement of the circle above to be the same as a quarter in the hands of a magician. If it’s true that we “fill” in information, anywhere the circle is not black would be a point when the magician could easily make an object vanish. In other words, between points A and B, the quarter we see is the static image in our minds (because there’s so much going on, our brains need a way to reduce the amount of processing power being used and the details of the quarter itself are just not important). If the magician pulled the quarter away during the distance between points A and B, by the time our eyes do the work to see it again (point B in this case), the quarter has “vanished”.

Let’s consider “how” we see. One possibility is the four-part process suggested in this paper: 1) intake processing – where our minds are busy analyzing the colors, shapes, shades, and other visual sensory input; 2) proximity processing – this requires processing the other senses along with visual input to identify where we are in relationship to the objects around us; 3) actualization processing – is the process where we identify those objects, determine dangers, likes, goals (direction), and sort our surroundings into a hierarchy; and finally, 4) Seeing – is what we believe we eventually see, at the conscious level, right in front of us. Because we don’t have an actual, internal mapping system that tells us where our limbs and body are at, we rely heavily on our proximity to other objects. In order to survive in a world of things that we can run into (or that can run into us) – it’s necessary to know where everything is located. If we had to process this information every second of every minute of every day – we’d have no time to process anything else, especially objects in motion.

Proximity Mapping
Proximity Mapping

It’s my belief that, our minds maintain a constant map of our environment at all times. While there’s not enough space here to detail it all out, simply put, everything around us is placed into a hierarchy level of most important to least important. In our immediate vicinity (as with the proximity mapping picture above), are the most important details. We need to know where objects are to avoid running into them. Within that realm of priority, the things we interact with take the most priority, and the ones furthest away – the least (and, as static objects – we don’t “see” them – since they’re not moving and we don’t need to waste time re-identifying those objects). In the case of interaction, we only “see” what we’re interacting with when it’s even necessary, further reducing what’s within our visual range.

This all happens through proximity mapping. This type of mapping temporarily stores images in our immediate surroundings and keeps partial images of other objects of priority in our memory (which explains, as adults, why everything looks smaller when revisiting our childhood, since our proximity and maps are now “out-of-date”). Our minds upload and offload these maps into our consciousness constantly in order to allow us to act and move rapidly. Then there are long distance items, like family or friends, that we picture in our heads – depending on their priority (aka – proximity mapping spans a huge amount of space). What about the objects we don’t actually “see” with our eyes? For example:

White Paint On Wall
White Paint On Wall

Think about your immediate surroundings. Without turning your head or looking around, what are the various shades of wall color you’re surrounded by? You can probably name them by memory and even picture them in your head – but do you know about the shadows and where those are cast? Why not? Because it’s not important. While we do “refresh” our vision – starting with what’s in our immediate proximity, the lower priority objects are refreshed much more slowly than the important ones. That’s why people who are extremely focused on a singular task (or fallen asleep due to mental exhaustion), sit up and upon taking stock of their surroundings (seeing the darkness around them), suddenly become confused. Time passed and they didn’t “see” it. In other words – our mind logs non-moving objects into memory and doesn’t need to constantly repeat the process of “seeing” those objects. This cuts down on processing time – dramatically.

Instead of worrying about what the fan behind me looks like, I can type this paper and focus on the screen ahead because I have a visual map telling me what my proximity is to that fan. I don’t have to look down at the keys on the keyboard … not because of “muscle” memory – but because of the proximity map in my mind. If it were muscle memory – I’d make no mistakes when typing. The only reason I do make mistakes when typing is directly related to the amount of mental power being utilized. If my mind has to spend extra time processing information, it might also have to offload and reload the mental map of my surroundings and suddenly, I’m looking down at the keyboard trying to figure out what to press next. Essentially, I know the keyboard is there – but while typing and focusing on the screen – I cannot visually see it’s details or depth. It is a mental image stored in my brain, reproduced only as a necessity, and is as invisible as the white wall in the picture above!


This brings us to the most important part of this entire discussion – why do we lose objects that we just had? One of the significant factors of our mental well being relies on a very basic concept – open and closed doors; otherwise known as “Out of sight – out of mind.” Closing doors mentally and physically is important to us because it cuts down the amount of mental processing (thinking) that we have to do at that moment in time. The problem is – our mind can close doors at times that are not so convenient later on.

Let’s say you just got home, were absolutely exhausted (especially mentally), and you throw your keys down with everything else. Your jacket lands on top of the keys. Did your eyes see that happen? Well – yes and no. As soon as your mind heard the keys hit the table, it was satisfied that they were safe and no longer needed to worry about them. Normally, you probably wouldn’t put your keys there – but this time – you were extra tired and had a lot on your mind. “Closing the door”, in relationship to your proximity to the keys, allowed your brain to shut down any further need to worry about where those keys were and focus more on taking care of you. In fact – as far as your “mental map” is concerned – your brain has loaded the map of the room you’re in and is busy identifying where the couch is so you can go sit down and relax. But, that mental map was loaded prior to your dropping the keys, so until your mind refreshes the map of the room you’re in – the keys are now – invisible!

Keys Outside of the Map
Keys Outside of the Map

The next morning you awaken, get ready for work and go to find your keys – but they’re gone!! You search frantically and look everywhere – but they’re nowhere to be found. Next, you re-trace your steps – and sometimes this works. But, when that doesn’t work, you start to think of alternate solutions, get frustrated, and go through a series of emotions that end with a deep breath and the final acceptance that you just have to look again.

There they are, sitting on the table where you left them. Why was that so hard? The theory here is that, you didn’t actually look around the room – you were looking around at images inside your mind. It wasn’t until you refreshed / reset your thinking that your brain decided to also refresh its map of the surrounding environment and … voila! The keys have magically appeared! It’s not that the keys weren’t important at the moment – it’s that your proximity map hadn’t refreshed itself. Even if your coat was on top of your keys, because your eyes saw them in motion and your ears heard them land – you know where they are – you just have to get your mental map in gear!.

This theory provides a solid understanding of why magicians can fool some people – but not all (it depends on where our attention is and where our mental map refresh time is at). It provides an understanding of how we can run into an object – twice – when our brains are out of sorts and our maps aren’t loading correctly. This theory explains why we suddenly notice things that we didn’t notice before, or why some people can look directly at an object and not even see it! This also explains how a driver can hit another driver when distracted, or how a person can run a stop sign and honestly not actually “see” it.

More importantly – this theory provides a key, potential considerations for diseases such as Alzheimer’s. If we rely so heavily on stored maps of people and places, but possibly, folks with Alzheimer’s are not suffering memory loss (as they remember things in the past), it’s not a short-term or current “memory” loss, but rather, a break in the neural chain that connects us with the most recently stored maps in our mapping system. Thus, what happens today for an Alzheimer’s patient is lost tomorrow. The mapping system is still working – but it can’t find the most recent maps, so it searches through historical maps and folks with this disease start asking for people out of their past, confused by their environment. Then the answer is only understanding the four part series of events in developing maps – when and where those take place – and how to reconnect them. (Of course – I’m sure this wasn’t the easiest of papers to follow – but the original is many, many pages long and contains much more detail. This is just a summary.)

So, the next time you’ve lost your pen, sitting at your desk (you know – the one you were holding only 4 seconds earlier) – you know it’s rolled under something or is sitting right in front of you – but you need to reset your vision in order to actually “see” it (because for your brain – it wasn’t actually there before when it stored its map). Take a deep breath, blink a few times, stand up for a second, close your eyes and then, re-open them and look – and – tada! Instant pen!

Now, go rest your eyes, take a fresh inventory of where everything is around you – and relax!!


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