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Do you remember the final scene in The Matrix?  Neo effortlessly blocks all of Agent Smith’s punches. Even turning to the side and seeming a little bored by it all?

 

I loved that scene, and yes, I am going to tell you what that has to to with developing better reading skills as well as other learning capabilities. 

 

I may seem a little crazy relating this to learning. Just bear with me for a few paragraphs. I promise it will all turn out well. And you might gain some Kung Fu reflexes as a bonus.

 

The team that created The Matrix movies had some really great insights. No surprise, they hired some very knowledgeable martial artists to help with the scenes. And old school martial artists tend to know a lot about the workings of the brain. That’s because they have to teach people really complex skills. So they have to understand learning processes well.

 

In that scene Neo turned sideways, demonstrating that he was using peripheral vision only. This skill of developing the peripheral vision has long been something actively developed by martial artists. It has multiple benefits which include:

 

 

  • Extremely fast reactions
  • Calming of the nervous system
  • Highly tuned spatial awareness

 

 

Martial artists have known this for millennia. Now neuroscientists are finding those things to be true and have also conclusively found it to have at least one more very important benefit.

 

  • Increased reading speed

 

Now, there are numerous theories among neuroscience as to why this is true. None have been proven conclusively. We are just a very longs ways from knowing exactly how the brain works. 

 

They have, however, proven that it is true. Increased peripheral vision and peripheral acuity have conclusively been shown to increase reading speed. Some studies show increases of over 40% and there are reports of 80% increases.

 

Secondly, it has also been shown that perceptual learning does actually train the peripheral to take in more area and also be more accurate in what is seen. In other words, we can train better peripheral vision and doing so increases reading efficiency dramatically.

 

 

 This study cites “Reading Speed Increases of 40% by peripheral vision training”

www.learningsuccesssystem.com/biblio/training-improves-reading-speed-peripheral-vision-it-due-attention

 

And this one says “Our results are consistent with the view that the visual span is a bottleneck on reading speed, but a bottleneck that can be increased with practice.”

 

www.learningsuccesssystem.com/biblio/letter-recognition-and-reading-speed-peripheral-vision-benefit-perceptual-learning

 

The research is certainly interesting and pretty solid reasoning for perceptual training. We’ve been doing perceptual training in the Learning Success System and our martial arts training for a very long time. It’s great to have neuroscience come along and give solid justification for what we have known to be true for a very long time.

Stress and Peripheral Vision

Stress decreases peripheral vision. Under stress we get tunnel vision. Unless we have trained ourselves not too.

 

And, of course, stress greatly diminishes learning ability. It actually shuts down parts of the brain.

 

Peripheral vision training actually has a stress reducing effect. Low stress is necessary for learning. Not to mention making life more enjoyable.

 

We tend to not use our peripheral vision well because we rely too much on our focal vision. In most individuals focal vision is dominant. Focal vision and peripheral vision should work well together. Two parts to an efficient system. Yet usually they don’t. And this causes confusing signals to be relayed to the brain. The resulting overload causes distractions. Leading to poor attention skills.

 

I’ve seen many children and adults who had attention problems that, after a little eye stability training and then, peripheral vision training, resolved their attention difficulties. They became far more relaxed and focused. They developed better attention spans quickly. The resulting reduced stress levels and longer attention spans allowed them to learn at a much faster rate.

 

Eye Stability, Peripheral Vision, Spatial Awareness, And Stress 

 

In many people with attention issues the eyes are very unstable. They jump to whatever draws their attention for that instant

 

When these people try to learn anything that requires coordinating the body in a new way, trouble ensues. The rapid eye movement and spatial problems add to the coordination confusion.

 

The brain is directed by the eyes. Whatever our eyes focus on, the brain assumes to be the most important thing to concentrate on at that moment. And it can only concentrate on one thing at a time. We simply lose awareness of everything else.

 

The problem of texting and driving demonstrates this. This attention problem is why texting and driving is so dangerous. Those that text and drive simply become unaware of the fact that they are operating a vehicle. Even though their life is dependent on remembering that they are in the driver’s seat. When they look at the text, it grabs their full attention, and they forget. Creating a very dangerous situation. 

 

In other words, our eyes can direct our mental attention to the unimportant and cause us to forget the important.

 

If the eyes are unstable the brain changes what it is focussing on constantly. It is getting massive signal overload and just can’t process it all. Attention span becomes non-existent.

 

That is why eye stability is the first thing we work on. It’s a relatively easy fix. It’s almost always an issue. Without it nothing else has much of a chance of working.

 

Expanding the Peripheral

 

The second reason reading is improved through perceptual training has to do with the relationship between stress and feild of vision..

 

When we become stressed we get tunnel vision. Our vision narrows down tightly. This is a result of switching into the sympathetic nervous system. Fight or flight mode. The amygdala sets this in action. 

 

It’s easy to assume that the brain, and specifically, the amygdala is in charge of the whole stress process. We assume its a top down leadership. Except that’s not exactly true. It also works in reverse. The brain checks in with the body to check emotional state. Yes, the amygdala tells the body to stress out, but it also monitors the body to know when to turn the stress back off. It’s a positive reinforcement loop. If the body position and eyes reinforce that we are stressed then the stress continues or even increases. Sending more stress reinforcing signals to the brain. 

 

If we know how, we can break that loop and return to our normal, healthy, stress free state. But the most efficient way to do it is with the body, not the mind. We cannot logic away an emotion. We can use our body to tame an emotion. 

 

Anything we can do with the body, that is the opposite of what the sympathetic nervous system tells it to do, will tell the amygdala that all is well. No reason for alarm. An expanded peripheral vision is one of those things. The amygdala assumes that if we do not have tunnel vision we are not stressed. It assumes that if we are breathing deep and slow we are not stressed. It assumes that if are posture is upright and strong we are not afraid. It assumes if we are moving in a strong and confident way that we must be in control of the situation. The more of these signals that it gets the more it turns off the stress response and returns our brain to a normal, healthy parasympathetic state. A state where learning can occur.

 

Once we train ourselves to expand our peripheral vision we can use that tool, and others, to relax and destress the mind. Putting us back into a learning state. Our logic can’t do it but our body can.

 

Of course for some strange reason we all try to use logic, it just never works.

 

Learning cannot happen while our nervous system is in the sympathetic state. Not only are the learning centers of the brain shut down but actual blood flow to them is shut down. Most children who are having difficulty learning are under huge levels of stress. Making learning nearly impossible. In this state pushing more academic work on them will not help, it will only make it worse. Yet that’s what generally happens

 

Helping them learn to calm the nervous system is essential. Do that and the learning will come naturally. 

 

There are various other mind-body techniques that are also highly effective at regulating the nervous system. We use these both in the Learning Success System and in our martial arts training. They are an integral part of maximizing the learning process. Especially for a struggling student.

 

Increased Reading Speed

There are a number of theories as to why increased peripheral vision increases reading speed. Some neuroscientists suggest that the peripheral vision acts as a preprocessor. It guesses at meaning before the focal vision can fully assess. Other theories suggest that it simply directs attention. Keeping the mind flowing in the right direction. And others yet suggest that it simply expands foval vision, the amount that the brain can take in. So if we can see more letters at a time we can read faster. 

 

Quite possibly it is a combination of all of the theories. It will be some time before we know for sure. But for the purposes of you and your child, that doesn’t matter. What we do know is that it works, and that’s all that is important now.

 

So how do you do train better peripheral vision?

 

We use a number of techniques to increase peripheral vision as well as peripheral acuity. I’ll go over them below. But first realize that if there is an eye stabilization problem then that must be handled first. Working on peripheral won’t help much if the eyes cannot stabilize and track properly. I’ll cover eye stabilization in another post.

 

There are a number of theories as to why increased peripheral vision increases reading speed. Some neuroscientists suggest that the peripheral vision acts as a preprocessor. It guesses at meaning before the focal vision can fully assess. Other theories suggest that it simply directs attention. Keeping the mind flowing in the right direction. And others yet suggest that it simply expands foval vision, the amount that the brain can take in. So if we can see more letters at a time we can read faster.

 

Quite possibly it is a combination of all of the theories. It will be some time before we know for sure. But for the purposes of you and your child, that doesn’t matter. What we do know is that it works, and that’s all that is important now.

 

So how do you do train better peripheral vision?

 

We use a number of techniques to increase peripheral vision as well as peripheral acuity. I’ll go over them below. But first realize that if there is an eye stabilization problem then that must be handled first. Working on peripheral won’t help much if the eyes cannot stabilize and track properly. I’ll cover eye stabilization in another post.

We can train better peripheral vision and doing so increases reading efficiency dramatically

Exercises to Expand Peripheral Vision and Increase Visual Acuity

Peripheral Vision Exercise - Step 1

 

First realize that the neck and eyes are, or should be, very coordinated. When we move our head around, our eyes can easily move in such a way as to keep the image stable. We can also let our eyes track in a stable way even though the head is moving. 

 

So if there is tension in the neck, this is going to cause a problem. The two are very related. Because of this it’s important to relax the neck first.

 

First just do some simple neck stretches. Side to side, forward and back. Move and relax the neck.

 

Next, do the same neck stretches while keeping the eyes stable. Look at something and as you move your neck through all of the same stretches keep the eyes fixed on the same spot. You should realize how well they work together.

 

Peripheral Vision Exercise - Step 2

 

Massage around the eyes and under the cheekbones. If the muscles around the eyes are tense, which often happens from too much screen time, you’ll need to relax them. Otherwise this tension can narrow the vision. There are a few nerve points under the cheekbones that with a little massage will release tension in the face and eyes.

 

For bonus points there is also a pressure point between the base of the thumb and index finger. If you search you can find it. A gentle pressure there will also release tension around the eyes.

 

Peripheral Vision Training - Part 3

 

When standing in a group of people who are chatting look at the person who is talking at the moment but try to be as aware as possible of the others. If you soften your gaze it will help.

 

Try to be aware of incidental movements of the others while paying attention to the speaker. 

 

What can you see without looking?

 

In martial arts training we expand on this by doing blocks while staring at the center of the chest of our training partner. We try to imagine looking at a point 18 inches behind our training partner. This softens the gaze and puts more emphasis on the peripheral. The more you practice, the more control you will have of your vision and the less the focal vision will try to dominate. You can do this same “looking through” eye emphasis in the chatting group exercise.

 

Peripheral Vision Training - Part 4

 

Similar to the group chat exercise, but in this one we want to enhance peripheral acuity.

 

In this case the subject stands in a group, just like before. Now, as the one person is talking the other group members hold up a random number of fingers. As the subject softly watches the chatter they also try to count the fingers without looking at them. They can hold up the same number of fingers with the right or left hand signifying what they saw on the right or left. This does also provide another distraction and makes it more difficult. So if it is too hard they can just say the number.

 

The group members should change the position that they hold the hand in to activate different areas of the peripheral.

 

This will build not only the peripheral vision but the peripheral acuity as well. Once the practice has been done a few times the student should be able to practice without the help of the group. Simply noticing, when they want to, how much of the peripheral they see and what detail they see in it.

 

 

Peripheral Training Elsewhere

 

This type of peripheral training is not exclusive to martial arts. Many sports coaches today are emphasizing the importance of peripheral vision training to enhance reaction times, spatial awareness, and even cognitive skills. Naturalists and hunters alike know that you don’t see the animals in the forest unless you rely on your peripheral vision. Your focal vision won’t pick up the movement.

 

And you’ve probably trained it yourself. If you have driven a car for any length of time you have developed the ability to see other cars, people, or animals entering the roadway. Young drivers don’t have this skill, they have tunnel vision. You can simply learn to apply this same skill elsewhere to develop it.

 

Screens

 

We now know the importance of enhancing our peripheral vision. But if you look up from your screen you might see the reason why it is so lacking. Yep, everyone else is looking at a screen. We spend so much time focusing down at those little screens that we don’t see the world around us. And not exercising our eyes to be able to take in not only the close but also the far and wide can lead to more than vision trouble. It leads to brain trouble as well.

 

 

So look up and stretch those vision skills. It will help your eyes. It will help your brain. It will help your reading skills.

 

 

Key Takeaways:

1
Increased peripheral vision increases reading speed
2
Increased visual acuity increases reading speed
3
Peripheral vision can be enhanced with training
Our brains are amazing and powerful. They didn’t come with an operating manual so we have to learn to use them in the best way possible.

Bonus

So this was about reading and cognitive skills. However I did mention that well trained peripheral vision can make you Kung Fu fast as well. If you want to know about those Jackie Chan skills read on.

 

I’ve always explained this concept using the triune brain theory. That theory says we have a reptilian brain, overlaid by a mammalian brain, overlaid by a human neocortex. The triune brain theory is now disputed but it still works pretty good for explaining things. The explanation goes like this.

 

The Slow Brain

 

Our focal vision is hard wired to the neocortex. This type of vision sees very high levels of detail. It processes color and amazing detail. This area of the brain also correlates with our logical thinking skills. If we see something with this part of our vision we tend to think through our response. Calculating a progression analysis

 

But all this detail and thinking comes at a cost in processing power and time. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, calls this our slow brain. If we use our focal vision we will also use our slow brain.

 

The Fast Brain

 

Have you ever had the experience of knocking something off of a table and instantly catching it? 

 

You reacted with speed and accuracy before even realizing it right?

 

Well, that was your fast brain.

 

Your peripheral vision is connected to that primal part of the brain. It doesn’t think. It doesn’t process all the detail. It just reacts.

 

So if you want that kind of blazingly fast reactions all the time all you have to do is train the reactions you want into the primal brain (Hint, use visualization to do this) and make sure to train your peripheral. Do that and BAM you're a Kung Fu master.

Well almost but that’s the gist of it.

 

By the way, a recent study has found a link between the peripheral vision and a special part of the brain that processes motion very fast. This part of the brain seems to be specially designed to carry out that specific tasks. As it turns out it is in the limbic brain, not the reptilian brain. Works as described though. 

 

We posted that study here:

 

www.learningsuccesssystem.com/biblio/specialized-area-limbic-cortex-fast-analysis-peripheral-vision

 

Powerful Brains

 

Our brains are amazing and powerful. They didn’t come with an operating manual so we have to learn to use them in the best way possible. Gaining control of our vision goes a long way in that direction. Helping us operate, heal, and enhance our own brains. It just takes a little discipline and know how.

 

Pretty amazing that we have the power to change the way our own brain works. For the better or for the worse. You choose the direction for your brain. We also are responsible for guiding our children in choosing theirs. Let’s do a good job of that to ensure their best possible future.

 

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