Optics Matter: New Vision Research Suggests Peak Performance Is Only A Jump To Warp Speed Away

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Scientists from Scripps Research Institute just discovered that optic flow—the technical term for the temporal rate at which objects move past the eye—helps us map our world. And their discovery sheds new light on the science of ultimate human performance.

The researchers were investigating the question of how the visual system gets better over time. We’ve known for a while that this system creates internal maps of external environments—what the Scripps researchers discovered is that directionality matters.

Let’s start with their experiment.

The researchers took transparent tadpoles, used fluorescent dye to mark the axons that (once development is complete) connect the retina to the eye, then split the animals into two groups.

One group was put in a tank and shown a computer screen filled with bars of light that moved front-to-back, meaning it mimicked what the tadpoles would see if they were swimming forward. The second group was reversed. They got to see bars of light moving backwards—that is, back to front. Then, using high resolution cameras to capture the action, they simply watched axonal development over time.

Turns out the brains of the forward motion tadpoles mapped out normally, while those who viewed things backwards ended up with grave errors on their maps.

The result reverses a longstanding finding in neuroscience which says that neurons near one another fire at roughly the same time and the order (aka., the timing sequence) of their firing is unimportant. This new work shows that the sequence matters, that the order in which objects are perceived actually helps the brain tell time.

Examples are helpful. If you’re jogging down a street and pass a pub on the left side, the brain maps the pub’s location. If, a couple hundred yards ahead, you pass another pub, the brain puts another pin in its map and calculates the spatial relationship between the two buildings. This much was old news. What we didn’t know was that the brain also maps distance between these pubs as a function of time.

To understand what this has to do with ultimate performance requires a little more information. We know that flow states are the secret to optimal performance. We also know that flow states have triggers, or pre-conditions, that lead to more flow.

These triggers share one thing in common—all of them are ways of driving attention into the now.

This makes sense. Flow is a present tense experience, it can only happen when attention is tightly focused on the present moment and the present action. Thus these triggers are nothing more those things that evolution shaped our brain to pay maximum attention to.

As of right now, researchers have identified 17 different flow triggers—but there’s nothing hard and fast about that number. In fact, many researchers (myself included) believe there are plenty more to be found, with optic flow being a very likely candidate.

There’s a growing pile of anecdotal evidence coming out of the action and adventure sports that the speed at which objects move past one’s eye can act as a flow trigger. Mountain bikers, for example, report that leaving a wide open trail and ducking into the woods tends to drive them immediately into the zone. Similar reports come from skiers and snowboarders who ride in the trees and trail runners who run in and out of the woods.

So what’s different here?

It’s not usually acceleration. It’s obviously far more dangerous to ride or run through the woods so most people don’t tend to speed up at those moments.

The real change is in the visuals. There appears to be a certain optic flow threshold that, once crossed, sets off alarm bells in the brain and drives attention into the now and pushes people into flow states.

Look at it this way. Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet, clocks in at 28 mph in the 100 yard dash. Most of us top out around 24 mph. So the fastest we can ever run, in very extreme circumstances, like when we’re being chased down a mountain by a bear, is around 30-35 mph (with the gravity assist). Any faster and we outrun our legs, thus tumbling down that mountain and ending up as dinner. Thus, when objects move past our eyes at a certain rate, it’s actually a signal to the brain that a crisis is occurring and thus it pays to pay attention.

Essentially, there is a certain optic flow threshold that says: Hey, you’re starting to move very, very fast, this means you’re either chasing after prey or running away from a predator, and, in either case, it would be a good idea to raise the level of performance by focusing attention and kicking you into flow. In other words, a high rate of optic flow might lead directly to a flow state.

But the reason this is incredibly interesting comes down to virtual reality. Everyone wants greater access to flow (states, not optic). And today’s VR technology—Occulus Rift etc.—can very easily produce high rates of optic flow.

This suggests that, if, you’re at work and having trouble focusing, then simply donning a pair of VR goggles that moves objects quickly past the eye—like a scene showing the iconic Star Trek jump to warp speed —might be enough to trigger this reaction.

And what this means is that our longtime dream of flow on demand might just have gotten a little closer.

[image credit: mountain biking courtesy of Shutterstock]

Steven Kotler is an author, journalist and Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to decoding the science of ultimate human performance. His books include “Abundance,” “A Small Furry Prayer,” “West of Jesus,. and "The Angle Quickest For Flight." His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Mo...

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