Training Can Improve Vision
With a little practice on a computer or tablet — 25 minutes a day, four days a week, for two months — our brains can actually learn to see better. That is the encouraging finding of research done at the University of California, Riverside and published in the journal Current Biology. Although the team did the training with baseball players at the university who had normal vision, the hope is that the same training, called perceptual learning, will help people with low vision due to cataracts, macular degeneration, or amblyopia. The scientists also plan to apply the principles to other aspects of cognition, including memory and attention.
A release from the publisher quotes researcher Aaron Seitz as saying, "The demonstration that seven players reached 20/7.5 acuity—the ability to read text at three times the distance of a normal observer—is dramatic and required players to stand forty feet back from the eye chart in order to get a measurement of their vision." For reference, 20/20 is considered normal visual acuity.
In the training game, the players' task was to find and select visual patterns modeled after stimuli to which neurons in the early visual cortex of the brain respond best, Seitz explains. As game play commenced, those patterns were made dimmer and dimmer, exercising the players' vision as they searched.
"The goal of the program is to train the brain to better respond to the inputs that it gets from the eye," Seitz says. "As with most other aspects of our function, our potential is greater than our normative level of performance. When we go to the gym and exercise, we are able to increase our physical fitness; it's the same thing with the brain. By exercising our mental processes we can promote our mental fitness."
After the two-month training period, players reported "seeing the ball much better," "greater peripheral vision," "easy to see further," "able to distinguish lower-contrasting things," "eyes feel stronger, they don't get tired as much," and so on.
The players also showed greater-than-expected improvements in their game. They were less likely to strike out and got more runs. The researchers estimate that those gains in batting statistics may have given the team an additional four or five wins in the 2013 season.
"Understanding the rules of brain plasticity unlocks great potential for improvement of health and wellbeing," Seitz says.