Sound Off – Peripheral Vision

Peripheral Vision

I have learned from a lifetime of misplacing objects, that often the best way to find something is to not look for it directly. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. I’m the quintessential absent-minded professor who sets down the screwdriver already in his hand while searching for a wrench, only to lose the screwdriver in the process. Then I’ve got to look for the screwdriver without losing the wrench again. So you can see I’ve had a lot of practice looking for lost objects. But knowing how to look for a lost object is important. Many times I would get angry at myself for losing the screwdriver in the first place and try to stare down the room. That doesn’t work very well for me and I just end up getting more frustrated, which causes me to look even harder. If, however, I can calm myself down enough to not look directly for the lost object, it will often show up in the edge of my vision. In short, my peripheral vision often sees things that can’t be found while looking directly at them.

This technique of looking in your peripheral vision works for new things as well. Try to stare too hard at a painting and it’s just a bunch of dots. But look at it from the edge of your sight, and now you see crashing waves and a boat struggling against a storm. If I’m driving across the desert, I can often spot the one cactus with a flower out of thousands of barren ones. I’m not looking for anything in particular, but there it is, a splash of color in a sea of sand.

And so it was with the rainbow. Now, I’ve seen a lot of spectacular rainbows in my days. I’ve seen double rainbows a few times, a dual concentric wash of repeating colors. I’ve seen the often elusive end of the rainbow once, where you can see the ends of the rainbow touch the ground in front of a mountain, but no pot of gold was in sight. And finally, I’ve seen the really rare circular rainbow twice, a complete ring of color that goes all the way around, never touching the ground.

That’s right… a circular rainbow, and here’s how it works. All rainbows go in a complete circle, but the bottom half is normally below the horizon so you never see it. If you could dig a hole deep enough in the earth at just the right angle from your vantage, every rainbow would be complete. But just like nearly everything else in life, half of the beauty is below the skin and invisible unless you know where to look. Circular rainbows can only be seen in their totality from an airplane, and you have to be going in just the right direction, with just the right amount of moisture in the air and the sun positioned at the right angle in the sky. Oh… and you have to notice them in your peripheral vision while looking out the window in the airplane.

The first time I saw one I was casually looking at clouds out of the window. And there it was, a shimmering rainbow that surrounded the shadow of the plane as it danced across the low cloud cover. So it would pop in and out of view against a background of white. At first I thought it was a prism effect of the clear Lexan window, but when I pointed it out to the flight attendant and passengers around me they all saw it too. Unfortunately, it was gone before I could grab my camera from the overhead bin.

After that I made the mistake of looking too hard for my next circular rainbow. I would stare out of the window of every flight with camera in hand, hoping to document this most elusive of visual effects. Dozens of flights and years went buy until I had completely given up on seeing one again. But finally after forgetting to look for it, there it was again, right in the edge of my vision just as I had remembered. This time it was more stable lasting for several minutes, and when I told the flight attendant she admitted that in all her years of flying she had never seen one. She relayed the info to the captain who quickly announced over the PA system for everyone to take a look at the circular rainbow on the right side of the plane. For a moment, we all shared that most elusive view.

We can all learn something from peripheral vision. If my wife and I are expecting straightforward thanks from my teenage boys, it typically doesn’t happen. But when we’re not looking too hard we’ll often see them do something that shows they appreciate our hard work. My wife is an artist, and many times other people will see things in her paintings she claims weren’t planned. They just happen without her actually looking directly at her brush. As a musician, some of the best music I’ve ever played all happened while listening to the entire mix of the band, not just my own instrument. In short, if you look too hard for something, often you’ll not see it. But quiet your busy mind and watch the edges of your peripheral vision, and you’ll see much of what the rest of the world seems to be missing.

Copyright Mike Sokol 2009 – All Rights Reserved

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