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Visual Processing: Going Beyond What the Eye ‘Sees’

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

That quote, from Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, came to mind as I was preparing to leave my home recently on a windy day in May. I knew it was breezy. I could see hair being tousled and sleeves of jackets fluttering as people walked past my window. At the same time, my brain, in retrieving these images, “saw” more than people bucking the wind. It “processed” the information and, in so doing, suggested to me – almost instantaneously -- that the outdoor temperature was not very cold, although a sweater might be in order.

Within literally microseconds, my brain had linked visual information (no one appeared to be wearing a heavy coat) to auditory information (I heard the weather forecast earlier on radio) to memories of my past weather experiences, ultimately indicating I could go comfortably outdoors without a heavy jacket. 

The processing of information presented to my senses functioned normally. I could readily assess weather and proper dress simply by looking out my window. As the author of an article in Current Opinion in Ophthalmology defined it, visual processing is the “main brain function allowing normal perception of what is being viewed.”

But what is the difference between being able to “see details clearly” – 20/20 eyesight – and being able to “perceive” and “visualize” clearly? Perhaps famous American author Mark Twain answered that question best when he wrote:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Visualization is the ability to form images in the mind and to use these mental pictures as a way of learning, understanding, imagining, being creative, planning strategically for the future, setting goals, ultimately achieving what one wants to do in life – and, yes, realizing, perhaps, your parents were right after all. It is a skill closely tied to brain development. More than 30 years ago, Scientific American magazine wrote that intelligence cannot be separated from vision (meaning visualization, rather than eyesight).

The term “visual processing” refers to the brain’s almost instantaneous ability, consciously and subconsciously, to take in external sensory signals (from eyesight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), combine them with a person’s internal sensory signals, and then process the information, allowing a person to react and respond normally to his or her environment. 

The images and information a person “sees” via light signals coming through the retina are reassembled and rearranged by the brain through a filter that includes emotions, motivation, and other sensory inputs, thereby allowing a person to make sense of the world. Indeed, visualization and visual processing require the essential, mental tools of identification (perceiving details), localization (spatial mapping to know where something is) and organization (ability to order, classify, codify, make judgments, plan, think, and decide). The driver of a car “sees” differently than the passenger, for example. The driver is constantly scanning traffic and road signs and looking well ahead for any obstacles or disruptions. The passenger is usually cognizant only of the immediate details of passing scenery.

But what happens when perception of one’s surrounding world is skewed, off kilter, due to head trauma, neurological disease, or simply lack of fully developed brain function? 

Visual processing skills are essential to all aspects of life – learning, social interactions, and sports – for children and adults. If brain circuitry is not yet fully developed or out of synchronization because it has been disrupted by injury or disease, people can become confused about their environment, have limited and/or distorted perception and awareness, and experience difficulties in learning. 

As American educator and businessman Stephen R. Covey once said, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.”

A good example of disordered visual processing is a patient with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who is stuck in “fight-flight-or-freeze” mode. Exposure to danger and violence, trauma or even unpleasant, unexpected events can elicit a cascade of neurological, chemical, and muscular reactions that chronically hypersensitize a person. Hypersensitization affects  perception, namely a person’s awareness of -- and attention to – immediate surroundings. Changes in perception cause spatial dysfunction and disorientation and may lead to mood dysregulation and difficulties in thinking logically – common struggles of PTSD.

But let’s return to the window in my home. A child watching the same passersby as I was would likely fail to take the next step in deciding – even thinking about -- what to wear outside. That is because the brain circuitry required for higher level visual processing remains less developed at age 4, 5 or 6.  The child would simply note the walking strangers, seeing only what is in the present without attaching any particular meaning to it or making connections to the past or future. Authors of a study published in a September 2021 issue of Child Development contend that children continue to develop visual perceptual skills until about age 10. Neuroplasticity continues until death but builds on that groundwork from the first 10 years of life.

Visual processing disorders and deficits are sometimes associated with faulty or constricted peripheral eyesight, as well as challenges involving visual memory, form constancy and closure (finding missing items even if those items are partially hidden or hiding “in plain sight”), visual discrimination (recognizing differences and similarities in objects), scanning capabilities, and motor integration, including eye-hand coordination. They certainly make putting together a 500-piece puzzle a near-impossible assignment.

An important focus of the Mind-Eye Institute is on evaluating and addressing patients’ peripheral visual processing, which comprises an overwhelming percentage of a person’s visual awareness. In contrast to glasses used as an eyesight sharpener, Mind-Eye lenses address overall visual comfort. 

The Institute is less concerned about how clearly one “sees” and more concerned about how clearly one “visualizes.” Our team uses 21st century neuroscience discoveries and neuro-optometric rehabilitation, combined with unique testing and evaluation techniques, to build new informational pathways in the brain and enable patients to overcome visual processing difficulties. We are now even working with the newer field of nanoneuroscience.

Knowing that the retina is composed of brain tissue and remains the primary portal for information entering the brain, the Mind-Eye Institute achieves clinical success through use of highly individualized “brain” glasses. These glasses vary the amount, intensity, and angle of light passing through the retina in order to bring sensory systems into synchronization; alter patients’ awareness, attention to, and understanding of what is happening around them; and eventually help restore visual processing skills.

Now, do you “see” what I am talking about? Doesn’t it “sound” exciting?

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