Vision Science and the Possible Human

By Paddy Kamen

After spending two days at a workshop with Dr. Lester Fehmi learning how to relax and broaden my attentional capacity, I had a startling experience with my eyesight. I was lying in bed in my darkened hotel room listening to tunes on my laptop. It was time to change the selection, so I turned on the light, sat up and looked at the screen without putting on my eyeglasses. The letters were blurry but then they came into focus as if I used a pair of binoculars! This had never happened before.

The following day I mentioned my experience to Fehmi, originator of the Open Focus method of attentional training. While his training system has nothing to do with vision training, per se, he said other system users have also experienced significant vision improvement.

Open Focus trains the brain to broaden awareness or focus by fostering increased alpha wave synchrony across the lobes of the brain. This gives rise to an experience of being relaxed yet alert. This article is not about Open Focus (you can learn more about it at: but about the possibility of improving vision via unconventional means. It was inspired by Sight and Sensibility: The Ecophyschology of Perception by Laura Sewall, Ph.D.

It is a truism that the scientific method is based on observation, experimentation and repeated verification of results. It is also true that scientists are wrong much of the time, that they have persisted in beliefs that belie the facts before them (e.g. the belief that the brain cannot reorganize itself – plasticity – in response to experience), and that they are often not open to exploring the unexplainable, unexpected and unusual. Like people in other walks of life, scientists are sometimes more interested in maintaining the status quo than in discovering the full range of the possible.

Laura Sewall is a vision scientist, who came to the study of vision partly as a result of experiencing a profound vision improvement via an unorthodox method. Having worn glasses for nearsightedness since her late teens, Sewall grew frustrated with the limitations her myopia imposed and began to study the Bates Method of Vision Improvement. She soon noticed occasional but significant improvement in her vision — “I suddenly glimpsed sharp, razor-like edges and neon colours… I could not believe my eyes…soon fabulous shapes and brilliant colours signaled to me, edges were sharp all the time…”

One aspect of the Bates theory is that the eye needs to learn to relax and not pull objects to it, instead focusing both far and near, alternately, by performing specific exercises. Some of Bates’ theories have been disproven, but what if this pioneer was actually on to something?

Later, Sewall traveled to Tanzania to study baboons in their natural habitat. There, she was further awakened to the possibilities inherent in the human visual system. She was amazed that her research partner, a Tanzanian scientist with years of experience on the savanna, could identify individual baboons from amongst three troops of 120, half a mile away.

By the time she got to Brown University’s graduate school, Sewall had stopped doing most of the Bates exercises and gradually lost her superior visual acuity, because of too much computer work and reading. She writes: “Despite the loss of my clear and inspired vision, I continued my research. I read between the lines, asked many questions in carefully controlled labs and pieced together a developing story: the neural structure of the visual system changes when the attentional processes in the brain are activated. It was assumed by researchers that this… occurred only during particular developmental stages in young animals. Among visual scientists, the discussion of such fundamental change in the visual capacity of adult animals was apparently heretical. Questions posed in research seminars about structural changes in the adult visual system — questions that implied visual potential — were met with quick glances around the table and unsatisfying answers.”

Sewall’s search of the scientific literature showed there were unanalyzed and unpublished data on structural changes in the visual cortex of animals that went well beyond the developmental stages. She became suspicious of scientific methods that ignored the outstanding in favour of the norm. “I learned that this kind of oversight is one of the classic limitations of Western scientific methodology. Like lies of omission, science names truth without reminding us that there is more to be revealed… Why, I wondered, did our research tradition focus on norms at the expense of identifying the great potential inherent in having… an exquisitely tuned human body?”

By participating as a subject in vision experiments on the absolute threshold (measurements of the capacities of the visual system), Sewall noted that she would dimly see lights that would be categorized by the researchers as ‘not seen’, and that she would produce different results, indicating different levels of visual sensitivity depending on, “whether I’d had a cup of coffee before the experiment or too little sleep the night before. I also knew… that my overall visual sensitivity was noticeably greater after meditating… I began to realize that the absolute threshold for perception is relative.” She also learned that the definition of ‘normal’ or 20/20 vision defined by the Snellen eye chart was hardly a scientific measure. “I knew Snellen’s story: he had established the standard for acuity by calling his assistant, who apparently had good vision, to the chart one day to measure what he could see from 20 feet away. And so it was that normal became normal.”

Sewall’s perception of the difference in her visual acuity after meditation practice makes for a fascinating footnote in her book. “Theoretically, when the ‘noise’ – or spontaneous firings in the visual system – is temporarily quieted by meditating, the signal is rendered relatively more salient and is therefore more easily seen. This interpretation of the visual effects of meditation is derived from signal detection theory.”

The above theory and Sewall’s personal experience fit well with both Bates’ concept of the need for the eye to relax and stop reaching for objects, and Fehmi’s theories about why Open Focus (which is actually a type of meditation practice) might have been so effective in at least temporarily improving my eyesight on that one occasion. Could it be that when we let go, broaden our focus and let the mind quiet, the brain can do the job of helping our eyes see more easily? Is it possible that with training, we can become better at this and experience revived and enhanced sensory experience on many levels, not just vision?

We know that Bates was not right about everything (a future article will explain his contributions to science and his errors). But isn’t it wonderful that he dared to pay attention to the actual experience of his patients and to try new methods to help them see better? Isn’t it marvelous thatLaura Sewall has the personal confidence and intellect to pay attention to her own experience, honour it and let others know more about what our potential might be? Our world is improved by those who challenge the status quo by paying attention to the world around them, as it is, unencumbered by the visual and metaphorical cloud of received wisdom.

Laura Sewall’s book opens (and this article ends) with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard:

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”