By Molly Dickinson
When it comes to our most vital sense, the eyes have it.
It’s our primary sense; our most-developed as a species and the one we rely on most to help us observe and navigate our complex and constantly shifting environments. It’s the sense whose properties, applications and limits we’ve studied, catalogued and tested the most; the one sense most of us say we wouldn’t want to live without. It’s also the one sense that truly lends itself to taking a more vitalistic “view.”
But what does a vitalistic view of our sense of sight actually look like? Let’s start with how we’re able to “see” in the first place.
How do I Look?
Put simply: The eye “sees” light. Images, made up of different wavelengths of light, enter through the cornea and pupil and are focused by the lens (yes, upside down!) onto the back surface of the eye, the retina. Here, about 150 million light-sensing cells (rods, which sense shape, and cones, which sense color) collect this information about the image and send it to the visual cortex of the brain via the optic nerve, where it can be identified and processed for meaning.
Looking at it on a page like this, it all seems pretty one-dimensional. You can almost visualize those old, middle-school textbook diagrams. Indeed, our sense of sight is so ubiquitous and so fundamental, that despite the fact that we have unanimously named it the most important sense known to humankind, the true power and wonder of our sense of sight is often overlooked.
Consider, for instance, how sensitive our eyes are. With perfect (20/20) vision the naked eye can actually see a human egg cell—the largest cell in the body, which is still only about the width of a single strand of hair. If you were to stand on the top of a hill on a moonless night, chances are you could spot a match being struck up to 50 miles away. And that’s just the half of it.
What makes our sense of sight so immensely powerful is the fact that every single “thing” that can be seen in our world; nearly every facet of our environment, our society and our culture has meaning ascribed to it based on the way it looks. Why do we “stop” at red and “go” on green? When we walk into an elevator, why do we immediately turn to face the doors? When we read the word “penny” or “dog” or “Mother” why is it we all “see” exactly the same or similar or entirely different things? It’s all because we are each able to not only see and to assign meaning to what we see, but to share that meaning with others. (And if you’re thinking this last part has more to do with speaking—that is, hearing—than seeing, think again. All communication is 55 percent visual).
A Healthy Dose of Color
Clearly, our vision enables us to makes sense of our world in a way that no other sense can—but can we actually “see” our way to a healthier, happier existence in that world?
According to people like Lilian Verner-Bonds, the answer is yes.
Verner-Bonds is a leading practitioner, teacher and lecturer of color therapy (or chromatherapy) and the current president of the International Association of Color. In her eight books and best-selling audiotape on the topic, as well as in her international lectures and private sessions, she stresses that colors—or wavelengths of light vibrating at different frequencies—have powerful psychological as well as physiological effects. “Color and life are inseparable,” she writes in her “Complete Book of Colour Healing.” “Color comes from the light, and without light there is no life. From the brilliance of pure light come all the colors, each with their own individual impact upon our systems mentally, emotionally and physically.”
According to the theory of color therapy, the power of color lies in two primary sources: our experience of the visual affect of the color itself and the feelings we (consciously or unconsciously; socio-culturally or biologically) associate with them; and the actual vibrations of the light’s electro-magnetic wavelengths interacting with the electro-magnetic vibrations of our own bodies. As such, chromatherapy is most commonly practiced with the use of saturated color charts, colored eyeglasses, vials of precisely colored oils (some of which are used in conjunction with massage techniques) or devices designed to emit a particular spectrum of light. Clients may be asked to select a number of colors from a range, which a therapist then uses to interpret potential physical or emotional symptoms, life events or unfulfilled needs and desires. Then, clients are often guided to spend time in the presence of and focused on particular colors whose influence or wavelength is considered beneficial.
Although there is plenty of skepticism surrounding the benefits and theory of chromatherapy, it is widely accepted that colors do have distinct and measurable effects on our moods and thoughts. Artists, architects and even advertisers have proven it time and time again. It’s obvious to them, and to us, that a bright, sunny yellow, for instance, is an instinctive color choice for say, a kitchen wall or a child’s toy, while a deep indigo is not, being better suited for a business suit or a set of encyclopedias (Vernon-Bond might say it’s because yellow is connected to positivity and communication, while indigo resonates with authority and organization). “By enhancing our awareness of the power of color and the effect it has on our moods, emotions and even performance,” she writes, “we can learn to use color to make positive changes in our lives.”
Whether or not you agree that different wavelengths of light can provide us with a burst of energy during an otherwise draining workday; or a way to manage chronic feelings of depression; or relief from tension headaches, asthma or even fibromyalgia—our ability to see, distinguish and associate meanings and moods with more than 10 million different colors (not to mention countless shapes, movements, facial expressions, etc.) is undeniably powerful.
Open Your Eyes
From focused contemplation of a particular color, shape or scene as it catches your eye—reflecting on how and why it strikes you, how it makes you feel and what thoughts it brings to mind (a simple, but effective form of visual meditation)—to gorging yourself on a true “feast for the eyes,” there’s a full spectrum of ways to explore and appreciate your sense of sight. Visit an art gallery, or create a work of visual art of your own. Paints, pastels, colored pencils, India ink, collage—let your eyes be your guides. Take in a stunning show on screen or stage (nature films on the grand IMAX scale are particularly jaw-dropping, as are noteworthy movies like “The Fall,” “Hero” and “What Dreams May Come;” or consider splurging on those Cirque du Soleil tickets). Think of a particularly stunning landscape or cityscape near you—or set your sights on a trip-of-a-lifetime panorama. Take it all in, then take a few photos to surround yourself with at your home or office. In fact, spend an entire day with your camera in hand (a device ingeniously designed to mimic the way our own eyes process images). Recapture your childhood curiosity and sense of wonder with endless frames of the perfect, petaled heart of a flower; snap a shot each time a cloud takes on a familiar shape.
Speaking of childhood wonder, how long has it been since you were thrillingly perplexed by the slight-of-hand in a magic show? Or the science behind an optical illusion? Track down a few “Where’s Waldo?” or “Magic Eye” books to curl up with on the couch for an hour or two. Perhaps you’ll even find an old kaleidoscope (or microscope, or telescope) to peer through while you’re at it.
Finally, one of the best ways to appreciate your amazing sense of sight (light) is to experience total darkness. Put on a blindfold and try to navigate even the familiar terrain of your house (you might want to make sure you have a lookout for this one). Or volunteer to read, play sports or just share a meal and a conversation with someone who is blind. “See” if you can learn to read the alphabet in Braille.
We spend nearly 100 percent of our waking hours with our eyes wide open (pausing only to blink approximately 15,000 times each day), which means everywhere we look is another opportunity to celebrate our amazing sense of sight and all the ways it helps to make our lives more colorful, meaningful and wonderful.
Go ahead—see for yourself.