The Physical response
You’ve been learning about the visual fileld and making some drawings of the edges of the field –Peripheral drawings. This last blog about the visual field is about that happens physically when you draw in this way
Some people end up feeling extremely tired, others experience a kind of wooziness, even nausea. I feel heat at the outside edges of my eyes – the skin towards each temple. Photophobia – an adverse reaction to light – is noticed by many. In a room with neon lighting it’s specially difficult –– you are hyper-aware of reflections and glare. This may not be on the periphery, but it is a constant irritation. The plant begins to blur, or tremble – some people notice a white halo forming around it.
On the positive side, you may well become conscious of the immense depth, as well as the size, of the field – how far the cursor has to travel across and into a deep background to reach the peripheries. The room became like a huge, gray swimming pool – perhaps the way a very small child, if you sat her down at the door, would see it, and want to crawl out and explore it. If you’ve allowed yourself, you can even go a step farther and draw the entire field in using this kind of seeing – you exerience what is called ‘visual flooding’ and the results are wonderful.
These are student drawings. Look too at these drawings by Rembrandt and Giacometti – I am convinced that they saw, and drew, this way.
This is because actual, physiological changes occur in your eyes when you use your peripheral vision. And when you get back into ordinary seeing mode, something else has happened that isn’t ordinary at all – there’s a very real intensification of depth vision or stereopsis. For those who have depth vision and never, or hardly ever, use it, the aftermath of this exercise is a revelation. It is a new way of seeing the world.
Right after these exercises, get up and move around the room – or take a walk. You will find that everything stands out in space, as if furniture, people, trees were cut out of cardboard. This intensity of depth vision will last a while and gradually fade.
The structure of the eye
The eye is a sphere. Light enters the pupil and strikes the retina, the layer of receptors at the back.
These cells, like the cells in the cortex itself, are devoted to certain visual attributes and indifferent to others. At the back of the eye, the location of each cell is of prime importance – they form a kind of map of the visual field; it’s obvious that a cell would have to be in the direct path of light from a specific part of the field to be activated by it.
Rods and cones
The retinal cells are called rods and cones because of their shape, and have different functions. The cones are concentrated near the centre. Here the main focus of the light is concentrated. In normal vision, fully 80% of the visual brain busies itself with information from this area, which actually receives input from only 10% of the whole retina.
These 6 million cones are specialized for wavelengths that we see as colours – yellows nearest the centre, others spread across the retina and blues farthest out. The cones decrease in number the farther out they are located, and there are none at the peripheries.
The rods are much more numerous, numbering 120 million. The further from the centre, the more they gain the monopoly, and out towards the peripheries they take over completely.
What were you doing?
When you paid attention to the peripheries, you were activating the rods of your eyes. And if you felt physical discomfort in doing so, there were physical reasons.
Rods are not happy in bright light. They do best with twilight or a dimly-lit room, so it’s no wonder you felt irritated by the light when you drew. The rods are most comfortable with ‘gloom’- twilight, moonlight, half-darkened interiors. Blues and greens, detected farther away from the centre, tend to become more intense in the dusk. Rods are also slower to respond to bright light, and can easily get overloaded – this explains your photophobia. Rods are also slowest to recover from a flood of brilliance – going out into bright light ‘bleaches’ the world of colour and tone for a short time, and has to be adjusted to. The reverse is true when you set off at night into the woods and have to wait for your eyes ‘to get used to the dark’. The rods pick up the mist of steady background luminance. They like being taken for a walk along the river at dusk, when everything is in shades of gray. Maybe you didn’t notice the lack of colour as you drew – you were using black and gray on white anyway – but if you think back, you might realize that no, you didn’t notice any colour out there. There was none .Check it out if you like.
Place a bright-coloured object (say a red shirt) at right angles to a mirror Stand back so the shirt is in the centre of your visual field and the mirror (with the shirt in it) is at the periphery. Check out the peripheral shirt.
Those who claim to be able to see auras have probably trained themselves to deactivate their focus, and if the long rods of their eyes are particularly well-adapted, perhaps genetically predisposed, the central shimmering created by the unfocused cones can be perceived as colours. This kind of seeing has a moral association – it cannot choose and judge so it is more likely to avoid being distorted by personal preconceptions.
Simone Weil equated attention with prayer (attender means to wait in French). She wrote that it is ‘a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go in search of it.’
What was going on?
By removing your attention from the focal point, you were de-activating the cones, denying them their customary top-dog position. You could not actively go in search of the periphery – that would have meant moving your eyes and would not work. So you set your heart upon it by paying attention – that special way of waiting upon truth.
When attention takes over, the chatter of the mind is stilled. Think back to your experience as you drew the peripheries, how the room became remarkably silent. You can also remember other experiences in your life, and in your art, when you have paid attention. The ability to step aside, to be empty, to disappear, is the essence of creativity.
In Castaneda’s Tales of Power the sorcerer told the apprentice to walk for hours in the chaparral, gazing before him with his peripheral vision, until the chatter in his mind was stilled.
When I read this, I wondered what would happen if one were to draw this way – the result was the peripheral drawiing exercises.
For more about vision, read ‘The Creative Eye,’ the book these exercises are taken from.