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Visualization Skills Can Get You Through Life’s Heavy Traffic

What happens when you are stuck in traffic on a Chicago expressway?  You consider travel options, of course.  In my case, choices ranged from inching along behind the semi-truck directly in front of me or potentially making better time by leaving the expressway and using local streets to arrive at my destination.  

Fortunately, I chose option two, because I knew where I was, where I needed to go, and where I should exit.  I was able to “visualize” Chicago’s grid system of streets rather than relying on a high-tech GPS navigation system or other gizmo to tell me how to move from point A to point B, sometimes in not the most expedient manner. The Waze App is fairly good, but my car navigation system can often take me in crazy directions. Much of my “internal mapping skills” were developed as a child, memorizing street names and their corresponding numbers, without the aid of yet-to-be-created technological infrastructure like a mobile phone or Google maps. 

All of which leads to the focus of this discussion: how reliance on technology is slowing development of some basic visualization skills in children and young adults, even while our society puts ever-increasing demands on visual capabilities. 

The situation is analogous to the emergence of electronic calculators during the last century and their impact on children’s math abilities.  Why learn long division when you can just punch a few buttons to find the answer to 487 divided by 23. But even using such simple technology requires a  person to have at least rudimentary math skills and a sense of how the technology works in order to judge the correctness of a calculator’s displayed answer to a problem.  When slide rules were the norm in my AP chemistry class, for example, we had to know where the decimal point should go.  Knowing that the number 48, divided by 23, ROUGHLY equals 20 — since 20 x 20 is 400 — is simple mathematics. Should you get an answer of 202 on the calculator, you will realize that you pressed a wrong button. 

Certainly, persons of normal intellectual capacity eventually “catch up,” learning how to move from total dependence on computers and electronics to some hybrid adaptation of technology and personal skills, including visual processing.  But children with learning deficits oftentimes cannot make this transition.  Their visualization abilities often remain deficient, and such deficiencies impede their intellectual progress, growth, and, ultimately, quality of life.  They get “lost” in life’s traffic, much like the time some years ago when I was driving in heavy traffic in San Diego.  I was stuck.  My mapping skills proved useless because I did not know the territory and, therefore, could not “visualize” the layout of the city.  I had to remain on the one road that I knew would get me to where I was going – heavy traffic or not.

One of our goals at the Mind-Eye Institute is to build visualization skills in children – and adults — who struggle, are considered “slow learners,” or have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder.  We do that by using “brain” glasses (Brainwear™), color filters, and other optometric interventions to vary the amount, intensity and angle of light that passes through the retina.  BrainwearTM is not intended to sharpen eyesight to 20/20. Instead, it helps improve retinal processing, which is part of visual processing.  These therapeutic eyeglasses work by bending light in diverse ways across the retina. The light triggers chemical changes that eventually result in electrical signals, which propagate through the optic nerve for further brain processing.  There are a handful of people who cannot visualize, but even they can learn compensatory strategies affecting eye movement control.

When functioning efficiently, visual processing enables people to understand and interact appropriately to the world around them. But, in people with learning deficiencies, these all-important visual processing skills are often absent or underdeveloped.

Why do I say “all-important?”  Because our society is filled with sensory demands – from scrolling on computer monitors and checking mobile phone screen alerts to avoiding vehicular traffic, bicyclists, and joggers whizzing by. Proper integration of sensory systems is particularly essential in the school setting.  Students must use some visual systems to maintain awareness of a teacher’s facial expressions, body posture and movements while also looking at information presented on a classroom screen or board and simultaneously listening and comprehending what the teacher is saying.  Older children and adults who take notes are even more challenged because they must synchronize their motor skills as well when writing.

The ability to shift gaze and attention during classes needs to be automated, synchronized, and accomplished by ‘tuning out’ distractions, such as the whispering of nearby students or sounds of shuffling papers.  That filtering ability is a learned skill. Many visual and auditory systems must be combined to achieve efficient school performance.  Our sensory systems are like musicians in an orchestra.  Each musician may be highly skilled in a specific instrument, but without a conductor synchronizing what they are playing, the result is simply noise – not music. The brain serves as our conductor, but often has not learned the necessary skills in time to deal with the demands of school – or life.

The intent of the Mind-Eye Institute is to provide patients with the tools to develop better processing– not to merely enhance clarity of central eyesight.  Using  21st century neuro-optometric rehabilitation combined with new mind-eye techniques, our team can forge and solidify new brain pathways that often enable easier reading, improve comprehension and attention, enhance overall learning, and eventually lead to academic successes and achievement of career goals.

Like any other skill, visual processing requires practice to remain sharp.  You may be a normal or high learner, but I suggest occasionally turning off the car GPS and planning your destination route using your own skills.  Technology carries you only so far. Sometimes, you have to rely on your own visualization capabilities to avoid life’s heavy traffic!

Deborah Zelinsky, O.D.
Founder, Executive Research Director
Mind-Eye Institute

 

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