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The Corner of my Eye

June 1, 2012

Spring didn’t happen in Mianyang this year.  One week it was 3 degrees outside and three days later it was 30 and 100% humidity.  The change didn’t just take us by surprise – the insects didn’t quite know what to make of it either.  The occasional Cicada ventured out of its burrow and let off a few experimental nocturnal screeches, but by and large the bug community did as most of us do when it’s un-seasonally bright at 6am – burrow our heads under the pillow and wait it out ‘till it’s bloody well supposed to be light outside at a reasonable 07:30.

This meant that we were privy to a happy few weeks with pleasant weather without the surge of segmented body part pests that usually go with it.  But no more.  The bugs have rallied and returned with a reckoning.  Nights are beset with screeching crickets, days with spiders and flies and the twilight hours are the time of the cursed, omnipresent mosquito which seem to have an uncanny ability to sneak through our sellotaped windows and wander lazily through our lounge just as we’re settling down for a relaxing evening of noodles and Tsingtao.

It’s amazing how quickly you pick up on the unwelcome presence of this annoying gnat.  Even if your attention is completely taken up by whatever is happening in front of you (currently season three of 24) the slightest mozzie motion at the edge of your vision instantly snaps your attention away from Jack Bower and his current predicaments (currently a president in danger a mole in CTU, a kidnapped family member and appearing to betray his country – do they hire writers any more, or just a photocopier and a copy of the previous series’ script?) and instantly focussing on the offending endomorph.

This is because cells the back of your eye are not all the same; the ones around the edge that pick up the vision at the edges of your site, your peripheral vision, are cone shaped and whilst not very sensitive to colour, are highly sensitive to movement. The ones in the centre of your eye are rod shaped and better at observing colour and picking out detail, but terrible at perceiving movement (the illusion of movement is created by your eyes constantly moving and ‘repainting’ the scene, like a stop-frame animation).

Not only that, the wiring is different, too.  Information registered by your central rod cells are sent down the optic nerve to the visual cortex  for processing, enabling you to make conscious, rational judgements on things you observe.  Information from your cones though are sent somewhere else entirely.  Recent brain scanning technology has shown that this motion based information by-passed the Visual Cortex and is sent to the Thalamus, a much older part of the brain left over from our days as tiny, timid mammals scurrying through the undergrowth and hiding from dinosaurs.

This is tapped in to your subconscious, your ‘hard wiring’, and triggers an instinctual automated response to movement – bypassing your conscious thought and allowing for much faster reaction time.  Test it yourself: hold your hand out at arms’ length (not any further, I don’t want any hacksaw / broomstick related injuries on my conscience) and hold up one finger.  Keeping your eyes forwards, move your arm to the side until your finger disappears from view.  Now, wiggle that finger and watch how it re-appears in your vision.

This rather clever ability means your inner caveman is able to hunt, target, make rational judgements on prey identification, distance and strategy whilst your instincts remain trained on unexpected motion in your peripheries – sabre-toothed tigers leaping out of bushes, mosquitos floating around your bedroom, or muggers emerging from dark alleys.

Peripheral, motion based vision is a gift from our past that helps us to survive our present.  Don’t ignore it, use it.  Stay aware of your surroundings – make observations on the objects you can see, imagine where you would hide if you were a crafty mugger after some nice tasty iPhones to prey on.  Check where shadows are falling, and where the reflective surfaces are around to enhance this early warning system.

Think of it as a motion based security system around a valuable item in a museum.  Any motion, indiscriminate of its source, will set off the alarm.  The only things that are allowed through are those things that you have seen, observed, focussed on and made a conscious choice to let in.

If your predator has evaded this early warning system by opting for a more direct, deceptive approach concealed by friendly intentions, and you are in a situation where you have to physically defend yourself, you can still put this visual quirk to good use.

In a fight, the worst place to look is directly in to someone’s eyes.  They will see this as a challenge to their dominance, and if they have done their job properly (and most muggers are quite good at what they do) they will use direct confrontation such as eye contact to further intimidate you, affecting your behaviour and ability to respond to their attack.

Instead, stare at their chest.  You will avoid much of the psychological  aspects of violence and confrontation, and as a bonus prize will be able to observe all of your opponents limbs in your peripheral vision, meaning you are better equipped to respond instinctually to any offensive movements they might make.

Sadly the down-side of this clever system is that I am doomed to have my relaxing evenings interrupted at every turn as I leap off the sofa and wander the room like a crazy person beating curtains, staring in to space and shaking loose clothing trying to find that one elusive little bug.  Personally, I’d rather take the bite, but alas The Lovely Jessica Nash feels otherwise:

“Do we have to do this again?  I’d rather just accept the odd bite than go through this every night.”

“Are you crazy?  Those things carry all sorts of diseases you could catch!”

“No, they carry Malaria in Malaria zones – which we are not in.”

“Oh yeah?  What about Tick-born Encaphalitis?”

“Mosquito’s don’t carry that.”

“How do you know?”

“…”

They say that if you can’t spot the mug in a poker game, it’s you.  If you don’t get the joke in the (true) conversation above, whatever you do don’t play poker for money.

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One Comment
  1. Good advice. Thanks, Nathaniel

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