This morning someone sent me this question. Like many folks who’ve started to explore the Bates Method, he’s experimented with leaving his glasses off, and maybe even read a vision improvement book or two, yet he was confused about this fundamental concept. He wrote that he knew he was supposed to see a central point clearly and everything else less clearly, “… but when I try to look like that it seems somehow very limited, like I am missing out on a lot of things.”
This student has intellectually grasped the concept of central fixation, that only the central point of his focus (the point “directly regarded”, Dr. Bates called it) will be seen with the greatest clarity. Everything else surrounding it will be seen less clearly. The farther away from the central point, the less clear something will be. Yes, this is exactly how normal healthy sight functions! However he’s coming to the wrong conclusion that all he’ll be able to see this way is a point and a small area surrounding it. Of course he wants to see the entire scene in front of him.
Unfortunately, if you’ve worn glasses for a while, it’s likely you’ve unknowingly trained yourself to see a large central area equally clearly, and your periphery hardly at all. Wearing glasses expands your idea of “the center” and shrinks your periphery. The strongest correction will always be in the center of the lens of your eyeglasses. This trains your eyes not to move too far away from that spot, because the view will be more blurry. So you learn to ignore your periphery. Plus the frames of your glasses are a natural boundary, fencing in your vision even more, keeping your gaze away from the edges of your visual field.
Several years ago I belonged to a gym with a water fountain right outside the entrance to the men’s and women’s locker rooms. A few times a week I saw gym members wearing glasses bend down to drink from the fountain, stand up again, turn to go somewhere, and walk right into someone else! People who wear glasses are naturally limiting their peripheral vision. Unfortunately, they often retain this limitation even when they take off their glasses, until they start training themselves to see more.
As students progress on a vision improvement journey, they start to realize and see that their central vision is the most clear, even though it may not be perfectly clear yet. In the beginning they may have to look some distance away from the center to notice the difference between center and periphery. Try looking straight ahead, and holding a finger at the side of your face. Can you see it, without turning your gaze to it? That’s your peripheral vision. See how far you can move it back toward your ear before you lose awareness of it. Also, if you hold a finger from the other hand straight in front of your eyes in your central vision, notice how the peripheral finger is more blurry than the central one. Play with bringing the peripheral finger closer to the center, noticing how it gets clearer, yet the other finger in your central vision is always more clear than the peripheral one.
New vision improvement students often have the same concern as the one who wrote to me, who said his central view is “limited”. Students are afraid that they’ll be missing something important if they look with central fixation. First, as I mentioned earlier, they can think their central vision is all there is, since they’re accustomed to ignoring the periphery. So the thought of having their visual field reduced to a small area is understandably scary. What they’re not realizing is that they’ll see the center most clearly, but will still see everything else too, just not with as much clarity.
The final missing piece to this is movement. The healthy eye is moving all the time, tiny little micro-motions called saccades. I like to think of these as the eyes scooping up all those photons which carry the colors and light ray information, to bring this data to the brain and enable the visual image to be painted there for you to see. Look at the sparkling eyes of a healthy child, or someone with normal vision — healthy eyes are not still!
So this false fear of “missing something” if your central vision only covers a small area is quickly relieved once you realize you can move your gaze and find a new center! The way the eye is supposed to work is to have the central vision focus on what you’re most interested in, scanning over it to pick up more and more detail, with your peripheral vision engaged also. Then when something more interesting shows up in your periphery, you’ll turn your central vision to that, to see it more clearly! A perfect design.
To practice central fixation, just easily notice. Notice that the center of your vision is the most clear, and the periphery is visible to you, yet not as clear as the center. Then turn your central gaze to that formerly peripheral view, and it will become clearer. Or you could look at 2 pencils side by side on your desk, or a little apart from each other, and notice how the one you look directly at is clearer. That’s it! Notice where your visual attention is, where you have chosen to put your focus, and that you’re seeing most clearly where you’re looking, and that everything else around that is less clear. Easy peasy. A child can do it!