Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
April 2015 - Volume 15, No. 4
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Peripheral Vision (Psychological)

[Also with a ‘centenary postscript’]

Peripheral vision is that vision that occurs outside the very center of our gaze. I think most of us know that. And the expansion of that physical and neurological map on Wikipedia can be a fascinating read.

However, what I’m considering in this writing, is the nature of our ‘psychological’ vision - the relationship between what we “see” and our consequent beliefs and behaviors.

Soft Vision

Some years ago I was introduced to the concept of “soft vision.”  The example given was in a military context. A watchman or sentry may scan the periphery or horizon, perhaps using binoculars or similar field-enhancing technology. An example is a submarine’s periscope. You can imagine the brows furrowed, representing the concentration energy involved.  The physical and mental act of seeing does use a tremendous amount of caloric energy.

However, in the orient, there’s a tradition of  “soft vision” - involving a minimal concentration or point of gaze, rather a relaxed opening of the full peripheral vision, by which can be more easily noticed any movement or interruption within the entire peripheral territory.  

Tunnel Vision

When we’re under stress, the body tends toward tunnel vision, where all we can see is within a very small diameter straight ahead. We know that especially when angry or anxious, our Field of Vision (FOV) narrows, both physically and psychologically. I can be working with a client couple who from the outside seem to be looking in the same direction, but in their emotional state, their FOV is so narrow any sense of seeing the same thing is almost lost. That’s one reason the psychological and counseling community is currently paying a lot of attention to meditation and relaxation practices. The term ‘mindfulness’ is very popular now. If an oriental sentry can learn it, the idea is so can we (in each’s particular ‘field of engagement’). 

What Happens

It seems when we feel under threat or off balance, our brain has a “when in doubt” reflex regressing to a more primitive state. (Here I’m using the MacLean “triune brain” theory (1990), now somewhat dated, but still a useful metaphor for these purposes.) When I am startled or feel threatened, my pre-frontal cortex (the most most developed and ‘most human’ part of the brain), the brain that has the ability to see the ‘larger picture’, will yield to my more emotional (limbic) brain, and then yield further to my primitive (reptilian complex) brain. It’s in that latter that my ‘reptilian’ (least human) fight or flight reflexes take over. Both mentally and physically my peripheral (large picture) vision diminishes, even disappears, to where I don’t think, I only react. 

I’ll tell clients, especially in couple or anger situations, that whenever they want to defend, justify or even explain, to “Stop! Nothing of value will be accomplished.” My own personal cues are that my voice tone raises, as do my palms and shoulders. It’s my own self-trained tunnel-vision antidote response.

This at least buys us an initial second or so of ‘thinking space,’ which invites the more developed part of my brain to kick in with better advice, more options.


An important part of being human is we have many more options than just our ‘natural selves’ seem to provide. An important part of our human culture has us provide and develop this capacity, beginning with the nurture and development of children, and on throughout our entire lifespan. I know this is a highly debated subject, but my own beliefs and professional action are rooted in this theory. 

An exercise I recommend is with pencil and paper (often more functionally creative than just sitting and thinking) begin a list of possible options in response to whatever dilemma or activity is at hand. (Options at this level don’t even have to be realistic, just to provide a rich and expanded perceptual visual field.)


This has to do with the continual exercising of our peripheral vision. I am blessed with fairly good (corrected) eyesight, and peripheral vision. I enjoy exercising it by fixing my gaze and noting what I can ‘see’ peripherally. I don’t even know if this really helps, but it’s an enjoyable exercise anyway. (I’ll ask my ophthalmologist at my next annual visit.) 

A particular friend of mine is blessed with an attractive and nicely-endowed body. She often complains about having to remind men “my face is up here.” I once told her “Over the years, I’ve been able to develop my lower peripheral vision in such a way I can look at your face, and still take in all the other visual information I want.” I’m not sure it’s true, but she was impressed, and pleased. (There’s a secret in that.) And I know women develop the same ‘skill’ in man-watching.  I call it seeing without seeing to be seen - a double compliment.

The secret is that it’s intentional. As humans we have the ability to choose by thinking (as opposed to letting our baser instincts prevail). Then the choice may become a habit. For example, it’s my habit to always look a woman in the face when she is looking in my direction. Then as circumstances may shift, we may change our behavior. Perhaps we need to retrain or rehabit ourselves. Sometimes counseling or therapy may be needed to break down the barriers to this ‘rehabitation’, or at least to help us struggle with its meaning.


One model for understanding prejudice is that when we see a particular image in our gaze, we will flood our mental peripheral vision with pre-selected material from another place than the current reality. 

Our Presidential history can be illustrative. Franklin Roosevelt hid his disability in order to not demean the power of the Office of the Presidency. That led the way for John Kennedy’s freedom to openly use that straight backed Carolina rocking chair for his own chronic back injury pain. Kennedy himself suffered the prejudice of being a Roman Catholic, remarkably by which subsequent contenders are now seldom considered by their religion. Barack Obama suffers the stigma of being “Black.” Many Americans, when they look at or even think of him, have their peripheral vision clouded with an emergent racial anger and prejudice, by which the Office of the President itself is today barraged with a discourtesy and downright hatred unique (I think) in the history of our Republic. Yet I hope when the time comes for another Black man or woman to inhabit our presidency, Obama’s suffering of such prejudice will I’m sure have some just reward.


So much of current political discourse is centered around the maintenance of “beliefs.” Americans, as contrasted especially with Europeans, seem have a particular fascination or obsession with the subject. Belief in religious freedom, belief in the second amendment, belief in the constitution, belief in family values, belief in religion, belief in freedom from taxation, belief in unrestricted capitalism - and you may begin to sense my own idiosyncratic ‘beliefs’ creeping through this list. 

“Belief” can involve the pre-programed faux peripheral vision that we have incorporated in order to alleviate the anxieties of life - the result of which those very anxieties can reinforce men and women to the point of being willing to demonize any opposition, even to kill for their beliefs. Such is the history of the human species as well as an accurate commentary on our own times.

There’s also the Apple versus Android wars. Fortunately as of the moment, no actual blood has been shed. The prize is only bragging rights. 

So What’s the Answer

My first response is to suggest you don’t answer a question until the question itself has been sufficiently well formed to deserve being asked.  

So here’s the question that emerges for me from within this writing: How can we both train ourselves to keep our vision soft (flexible) enough to continually take in the breadth and depth of the world available for our eyes can behold?  

A second question emerges: How can we more adequately distinguish between the world that is external to us in the here and now from the (frequently) unconscious faux peripheral vision that is constantly crowding around us with its over-easy answers and distortions meant to quell our anxiety and yet at the frequent cost of splitting the world farther apart. It also sells things (called ‘marketing’).

A standard psychological answer to each is our willingness to make conscious an awareness of the damage done when we allow our vision to be ‘hardened’ (narrowed) by our baser instincts, as well as by the over-easy answers of others who pander to those baser instincts.

It sounds like a simple answer. And on the surface perhaps it is. But you who are regular readers of my words, will recognize I find they contain the living of a full and conscious life, toward the building of a caring and interdependent society inclusive of all life on this planet. 

Keep your vision broad and deep. It can be a key to living life to the fullest - like keeping an attention to a broader (even peripheral) human vision. 

Pay Attention   


Centenary Postscript

This is the 100th monthly “Pay Attention” Newsletter I have written for this space. I began this project seven years ago, in April 2007, primarily at the suggestion of my son and webmaster, Michael - who’s been publishing this Newsletter for me ever since. Some of you, my readers, have been with me for many of these years, and I have appreciated your companionship. Many more tell me you have ‘gone back’ to peruse the entire list. (All of them are here on my website at 

I have been changed personally in the process. At first I wrote primarily psychological advice. But as the words flowed, so has my willingness to let my own deeper voice develop. It’s been a fascinating and satisfying exploration for me. 

Perhaps someday I’ll gather and edit them into a single publication. I am toying with the idea. In the meantime I’ll continue to write monthly, never being sure what will emerge next, but knowing the joy of letting the words emerge and be crafted into a somewhat coherent form that shares who I am, what I love to do, and provides a web of lively connection with each of you. And my thanks to so many of you who have enhanced the conversation with your written and pesonal comments. 

I invite you to stay with me as I and the work continue, especially in awareness that the writer is often not in charge, the writing is. Oh do I keep learning that!

And I say thank you.     Bill McD

PS - my current mailing list now numbers about 800 names - all gathered individually over the years from clients, friends, and the hundreds of folks who have added their own names. I’ve also attempted to cull the names of those whom the “mailer-daemon” and his minion cousins toss into their cyberspecious ‘dead letter box.’

Comments (2)

  • Well done! After setting the informative – ie reptilian brain etc – you moved us to a simple solution of developing soft and deep vision. Before eye issues I could intentionally “fog” my real vision – so I could listen better. It’s annoying trait of my extroversion that it is difficult to shut out the visual cues which are not always helpful in “looking deeper” and listening more acutely. Happy 100th! and one I can celebrate and wish for a 100 more!

    — Cynthia, 4/1/2015
  • Thank you Bill. I look forward to the monthly newsletter. You never cease to amaze me with your thoughts and I appreciate being able to read, think and hopefully grow with each edition.
    Many thanks! Happy Anniversary. May you live to be 100!

    — Gayle, 4/2/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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