Use Your Own Eyes
by William B. MacCracken, M. D. Use Your Own Eyes was first published in 1937.
HOW MEMORY HELPS VISION
MEMORY is an aid to vision. There are many reasons for this. An impression on the retina is interpreted when it reaches the brain. The correctness of the interpretation depends very much on memory. Trained inspectors, in any field, are skilled largely out of their experience, which is their memory. It is important to keep this in mind always. For one reason, such a habit will develop an attitude of attention, and lack of alert attention is responsible for a great deal of impairment of vision.
It will be instructive to make a personal test of this statement. For one week make a continual effort to look, with care and thought, at every object of interest. Study for a moment some one of the features on any face you select—just an eyebrow, or a chin, or the point of the nose—or go over the different lines on the face and search for some revealing characteristic. Select a small spot on the garment. Always pay attention to a small spot only. Follow the observation with a minute of deliberate consideration of what you saw. In looking at a large letter, let the eye follow the lines of the letter, instead of looking at the mere bulk of the letter. Upon occasion do the same with a small letter. If you are near-sighted, select spots just within your easy vision; if you see easier at a distance, work at that limit. Forget your eyes—just as you forget your ears when you listen. Use your mind. Be attentive, and fair minded, and ponder the results. "You'll be surprised."
But there is a further consideration which is specific and most important. When the memory is able to recall impressions of any kind, it indicates a certain degree of mental relaxation. The more perfect the recollection, the more perfect the relaxation. That this relationship exists, can he positively demonstrated. If the eyes are closed and covered, so that all light is excluded, and one can recall perfectly a melody, or a fragrance, or a taste, or a sensation of touch, it will be found that in the visual center there is a picture of perfect blackness. When no light rays enter the eye, the visual field should be black, because it is empty; that is because no stimulus is coming in through the optic nerve. If, however, the field is occupied with fragments of coloring, it will be found that the memory does not recall past impressions. The mind must be perfectly relaxed if it is to have a perfect memory—one of these conditions is a test of the other.
The memory is not dependable as a test, except for the degree of blackness. This is why memory of black can be used as a test, and as a method for improving the vision. There is what is called muscle memory. It is a nerve habit, by which a muscle is given a suitable impulse or order at exactly the right moment for some special co-ordinated movement. This is absolutely a mental reaction. Muscle memory is what enables dancers, and acrobats, trapeze performers and others to develop the ability to accomplish their marvelous performances; and enables the various technicians to become so skillful.
Developed mental habits are kindred psychological reactions. Likewise, a developed memory for black, when called upon, can produce specific reactions, in the mechanism of vision. One can learn how to recall, with closed eyes, a memory of black in the visual center. When this becomes a habit, it is possible to estimate the degree of mental relaxation, by considering the blackness which becomes apparent when the eyes are closed. One can improve the judgment as to the actual blackness seen when the eyes are closed, by comparing that blackness with the blackness of a small spot as seen on something black. A large black letter is a good model, but any real black object, or a soft real black cloth, or a black shoe will serve for comparison.
One can learn to carry the memory, for instance, of an ordinary period. The smaller the area the better. But it may be easier to begin by using for practice a larger circular black spot, and proceed systematically, by sewing a piece of a black letter, half an inch in diameter, onto a large square piece of soft white sheeting, and blinking at it as practice, in a soft light. For half an hour, less or more, one should blink softly at the mark for twenty or thirty seconds, then close the eyes for thirty seconds, and simply expect to see the period, while the eyes are closed; so continuing the alternating practice.
The significance of black, when the mind has learned to see it as a small period, is mainly as a help to relaxation. Thought of in the way the eye sees black, such a developed habit becomes an attitude of the mind which has a favorable effect on the mechanism of vision. In the chapter on palming, the value of the black field is described. If one practices intensively the technique of palming, it will facilitate the accomplishment of learning how to see a period in the mind whsle the eyes are open. Such a thought is so new that it is hard to realize. It is all very simple however, and of a kind exactly with mental processes which are of common practice. The black period is seen in the mind. The simple technician, and the finest expert are doing just the same thing in their field. The typist who is reading her notes while she touches the different keys quicker than thought, is carrying in her mind the exact motion that is necessary to make the particular letter strike the paper. The diagnostician that I saw demonstrate to a group of physicians his power of passing his hands softly over the chest walls of a new patient and then describing the changes that had taken place in the tissues, was carrying vividly in his mind several mental images that were just as real, and just the same in kind, as the image of a small period. All of these mental habits represent impressions made on the brain cells, and recalled, just like a name or a date or a fact, whenever the mind needs them.
In any system of memory some such expedient is always involved. One of the practices suggested as a help to remembering names, is a habit of visualizing, when the name is given, some imaginary peculiar appearance of the person named. If one at the moment the name is heard will attach some mental image to the person, if the effort is earnest enough, that unusual and peculiar memory will serve as what is called a reminder; but the main advantage will be the better impression made at the time because of the alert attention of the mind. To recall the name by remembering the special mental picture utilized at the moment, is a process similar to recalling a mental picture of a period when one wants to produce a relaxed condition of the visual center in the mind. We are all familiar with association of ideas. But it takes a little deliberate thought to realize and remember that we see in our brain, and that seeing a period is a mental process, just the same as seeing any of those mental images we are so familiar with.
This developed memory of a period sometimes leads to a trifling confusion in the beginning. There are cases where the relaxation secured improves the sight so unexpectedly that the surprise instantly disturbs the new relaxation, and the letter which came vividly into view is lost again in a flash. One must be reassured promptly by the proof received that the eye can learn to see the letter always, because it has given evidence that it has the power to see it clearly once. A little deliberate thought will prevent such an incident from interfering with a progressive improvement. I have never found any difficulty in convincing a patient that such a flash is a warrant, and a promise given the eye. I mention it here, because it has been the cause of confusion until the unusual phenomena was explained. It is not easy for one not familiar with the mechanism of vision to realize how or why an eye can have a flash of unaccustomed fine vision, and slip right back again into the old condition. I have had a fine surgeon, who prides himself on his physiology, ask me in astonishment why he suddenly saw several words at a time, on a test card with very small type, and then his customary poor vision took charge again, and he could hardly see the lines of type. He had never really thought of the subject, except in the perfunctory way that most doctors do. A year before, in his early forties, his eyes had begun to falter, and he followed without question the beaten path. It was just another case of that condition called presbyopia. The statements in the books about such cases contradict themselves; and I made him admit it. He was very much interested in the new idea of coaxing his eyes back to a normal conduct. That state of mind lasted for about three weeks. But he was a busy surgeon, and he never found the time to spend on his eyes, and so he soon decided that he would rather use glasses, and save himself that time. The point here is not that the doctor decided to wear spectacles for the remainder of his life. That is his own affair. My point is his attitude toward the subject. Although he accepted every explanation concerning the problem, his mind was not really aroused out of the remarkable, but customary mental inertia which is typical of most physicians in regard to the condition and the outlook today of the human eye. The outlook is the failure of the eye specialists to even consider any effort to save their patients from the consequences of an absolute neglect of the simple rules of health which are being used in every other branch of the medical profession.
Another way to learn to connect the image of a period with improved vision, is to blink softly and rhythmically at a large black letter, and make believe there is a spot on the bottom roll of the letter (G or C or G) which is Only as big as a period and is blacker than the remainder of the letter. Generally, even when the letter is not clearly seen at the beginning of the practice, it soon becomes very clear. The reason is that the eye stops straining, because the letter is placed near enough to see it easily, 'and all tension in the eye, and all concern in the mind is gone as the interest is centered in the game of making believe that there is a period blacker than the black roll of the letter.
In this practice the letter is a part of the picture from the first, and is always imprinting itself on the mind. It is quite common for an eye to begin in a few minutes to see a letter which in the beginning was almost invisible. The letter does not always continue to remain clear. The improvement in vision may be only temporary. But the memory of that success is not last, and coming easier each time, and lasting longer, the improvement for that letter, becomes permanent. This always means improvement in vision for every purpose. In this practice, as in every technique of the gates method, the essential requirement is that the mind be given without reserve. The conception of what is commonly called "concentration should be left out of the work. Instead of tension, there is to be a whole-hearted, enthusiastic attention, a pleasurable emotion, which is so strong and alert that no other distracting thought can intrude to interfere.
A German specialist replying to a letter of inquiry from me, explains in his personal letter a conception of the mechanism of vision that illustrates the different ways in which different minds interpret the same facts. That same writer has an open minded attitude, and is very careful in his observations, and very fair in his conclusions. Helmholtz and Tscherning agreed about the function of the ciliary muscle in the eye, but Helmholtz believed that the muscle acted to relax the tension of the capsule containing the lens, and Tscherning believed that when it contracted it increased that tension. In his meticulous interpretations of the meaning of established phenomena, my correspondent seems to forget, at times, the psychologic element. Sometimes he leaves out of his considerations the evident functioning of that part of the mechanism of vision which is beyond the knowledge of the conscious mind.
My correspondent reminds me, however, that our entire life is a sight school. He points out that one born in the country can see and describe the differences in the conduct of different birds. Looking at them in the air, the country boy recognizes instantly a difference between the sizes and the flying habits of the dove, for instance, and the woodpecker, et cetera. It is such a simple affair to him, that he is puzzled by the failure of the city boy to follow his descriptions; but the city boy had not yet stored up pictures of birds, and registered impressions. The writer explains that the picture on the retina of the city boy is the same as the one on the retina of the country boy. In other words, the writer accentuates the part that memory plays in vision; in this illustration, a memory which is simply an exercise of vision in a field to which it is habituated.
The same writer tells of the newly enlisted soldiers whose vision had been habituated to book figures, and were "nearsighted" at first to distant objects in their new surroundings. Whose recruits soon stored up a new register of those distant objects; and because their picture memory of the camp and the fields aroused their visual centers to an unaccustomed necessity, they perceived the objects which at first were not apparent to the conscious mind. That writer calls attention also to the spontaneous manner in which a veteran of a camp or garrison recognizes and identifies instantly the different marks of troops and of rank—simply because his memory prompts the visual center. In a like manner, the writer reminds me, we disregard much of the detail in customary pictures on the retina, as for instance, when we ignore the figures on the face of a clock and simply look at the position of the hands. That writer recalls that Cuvier was able to draw a complete picture of the skeleton of a prehistoric animal after seeing only one bone. His memory recalled the visual images he had registered during the years of research, and enabled him to actually see the picture of the skeleton, in his brain, just as clearly or more so, as a person without that memory would see the skeleton when looking at it, just the conception of these facts, if they are carried in the memory, and taken out habitually, and looked at, with the mind's eye, is a fine help and a most reliable expedient or technique in practicing the Bates method. The memory is such a large part of vision, that the neglect of it is a main factor in the faltering of normal sight. On the other hand, an alert attention to the picture in view, and a deliberate purpose to occupy the mind entirely with the performance of looking at it, will reveal to the consciousness of the adventurer an unexpected power in the mechanism of his own vision.