Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eyes Like an Athlete

The portion of athletic prowess that may be innate and the portion that is learned through practice were investigated through a study of the eyes of college baseball players.  The eye movements of eight players and eight college-aged, male non-athletes revealed the players have learned how to track a fast moving object by moving their eyes rather than having better image processing abilities in the eye itself.

To differentiate between these innate and learned abilities, the researchers had the young men watch an image of a Landolt ring, which looks like the letter O with a small chunk of the circle whited-out, move across a screen.  In one test, the men were allowed to move their eyes while they watched the ring move across the screen.  In another test, they were told to keep their eyes as still as possible.  After each test, the men reported whether the Landolt ring's white chunk was facing up, down, left, or right.  Their accuracy at seeing the orientation of the ring was used as a measurement of their visual abilities.

The baseball players were better than the non-athletes at determining ring orientation when they were allowed to move their eyes.  However, the groups were equally able to see the ring's orientation when they kept their eyes still.

Moving your eyes to track an object is a learned skill that can be improved with practice.  However, being able to clearly see a moving object without moving your eyes requires the image processing abilities of the thin membrane at the back of the eye, the retina.  This study of baseball players indicates that the ability to accurately see a moving object is a learned skill rather than one the athletes were born with.

The ability to track moving objects by moving the eyes is a skill often learned in highly specific conditions, like a batter or catcher watching a ball fly towards home base.  Thus, it is possible that the ability to perceive a moving object would vary under different conditions.  Studies investigating how we learn to use our eyes provide insight into the function of the various parts of the eye.

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