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Vision is one of our most wonderful and important gifts. It might surprise you to learn that the visual process is not fully developed at birth. Some still believe that the way we see is hereditary and therefore unchangeable. This is a misguided and often harmful, since it can cause manageable conditions and symptoms to go untreated. There is abundant evidence from many branches of science that development of the visual process is strongly influenced by the environment. That is, the variety of stimulation available, the demands we face and the problems we must solve in order to use our visual process all exert powerful influence on the direction our visual development will take.
The visual process is expected to continually develop and change throughout our lives to be at its best. Vision is not simply a thing done by the eyes. It is a complex process involving many areas of the brain, and various parts of the body including the eyes, head, neck, hands, arms and legs. As a dynamic process of intake and response, good visual performance must be learned and, if problems arise, can be improved with vision therapy and/or lenses. This improvement, contrary to what you might have heard, is possible at any age.
We must learn how to see just as we must learn to walk or to talk. However, it is much easier to learn walking and talking since we have access to examples. That is, we can watch someone walk and we can mimic the action – at first with some hand-holding, then on our own. We can hear and watch others talk – at first with much coaching, and then on our own. We cannot however learn how to use the visual process by watching or imitating others. Nobody else can know exactly what each of us sees. Even though the visual process is one of the most important things that helps bring individuals into closer contact with the world around them, it is, at the same time, a very personal matter. Few of us would be able to explain to someone what green looks like, how to make the words on a page clearer or how to use their eyes better. I don’t know if a human raised without other humans around would walk or talk, but I can assure you that they would find a way to use their visual process to a reasonable degree.
Besides determining eye health, most eye exams are limited to measuring sight, which is only a small part of the visual process. Sight is to the visual process what having working leg muscles is to dancing. Clear sight is in many ways a secondary tool within the vast, complex visual process. Similarly, working leg muscles are basic tools for the complex activity that is dancing. Interestingly, just as dance training can strengthen leg muscles, visual training (vision therapy) can lead to improved eyesight (though this has very little to do with muscles), despite the fact that most eye doctors think this is impossible.
In the case of a school-aged child for example, sight merely allows us to see the chalkboard or the page on our desk while vision allows us to copy something from the board onto a piece of paper or to file the image in our mind – or both. The visual process enables us to derive meaning from what we see. Our responses to the information we process are also formulated and guided by the visual process. The visual process has a powerful influence on how we think, learn, move, play and how we relate to ourselves and others.
The visual system, which includes the eyes and pathways to numerous parts of the brain, begins warming up in the womb as the eyes move around preparing for the day they can interact with the lighted environment. new research shows that even in the womb, the visual process has a level of ability and sophistication previously thought impossible. Soon after birth, the eyes and hands begin their job of relating to the surroundings by interacting with the people and objects that share our environment. At first, the hands do a larger portion of this investigating because the part of the visual system dedicated to fine detail is not fully developed (although details can be distinguished at short distances). The part of the visual system that is more developed at this time, peripheral vision, is concerned with motion occurring within the environment as well as our own movement and coordination. Peripheral vision deals with larger shapes and movement patterns, such as those of our caregivers, and has evolved as a survival mechanism to quickly recognize and respond to all aspects of our environment. The visual process has tremendous implications for overall development and behavior.