We see because light waves enter the eyes and travel through a number of layers before reaching the retina, where light sensitive cells—cones and rods—convert light into nerve signals that are interpreted by the brain. We, then “see” and recognize or understand what we are seeing. The cones collect color vision in light situations. The rods collect information in low light environments and contribute more to our peripheral vision.

1  Getting The Gist of a Scene

Peripheral vision is important in getting the gist of a scene or figuring out where we are.

Cones are color-sensitive and require a lot of light to be triggered. They are most densely distributed in the foveal area of the retina (macula), which is responsible for detailed vision. Rods are more densely distributed in peripheral areas of the retina, which contain significantly fewer cones. They are much more sensitive to light than cones and are therefore responsible for vision under low-light conditions. … It has been shown that for tasks such as recognition of the scene gist and place recognition, peripheral vision is all that is needed.

—Foveal Vision for Humanoid Robots (2015)

2  Visual Marketing and Peripheral Vision

Researchers in a recent study looked at the role of peripheral vision in marketing and consumer buying habits. The research suggests that giving consumers choices between two similar products helps the consumer “see” the products with peripheral vision where as a unique product among many similar products will not be seen as well. It is like the video which went viral of a man dressed like a bear walking through a group of people throwing balls. Viewers were asked to count how many time the balls were passed. Many people simply don’t see the bear. The bear is part of peripheral vision but so different from the visual task that it gets no attention.

In visual marketing, the truism that “unseen is unsold” means that products that are not noticed will not be sold. Peripheral vision helps customers to devote a larger share of attention to relevant products during the consumer choice process. Taken together, the results show how the creation of consideration set (sets of possible choice options) relies on both goal-directed attention and peripheral vision.

—Appetite (2017)

3  Motion Recognition in Far Peripheral Vision

In a study on far peripheral vision, researchers noted,

The maximum visual angle is approximately 105 degrees, but there is limited information about variations with age, race, or refractive error (in case there is an unexpected link with the development of myopia), or about how clear cornea, iris location, and the limiting retina are related. Also, the detection of peripheral motion is widely recognized to be important, yet rarely evaluated.

—Vision Research (2017)

4.  Acquiring Safe Driving Information

Safe driving requires both central vision and peripheral vision. A recent paper examined how drivers acquire information about their surroundings and noted the importance of peripheral vision, which is currently not testing by most driving tests. Researchers discussed,

findings in vision science which demonstrate the capabilities of peripheral vision.

—Applied Ergonomics (2017)

5  Training Peripheral Vision

In a study of people who lost central vision, which is usually the part of our vision that we read with, researchers were successful in training people to read faster and faster using their peripheral vision. What is interesting is that both the trained and untrained part of the visual field improved.

Seven normally-sighted subjects were trained with four daily one-hour sessions of a letter recognition task at 10 degrees in the lower visual field. Following training, reading speed measured using a rapid serial visual presentation showed a substantial improvement in the trained (lower) field (41%) and the untrained (upper) field (27%).

—Vision Research (2017)

One Exercise

Here is an exercise to improve peripheral vision and visual attention. Stand with your arms extended in front of you. Look straight ahead throughout the exercise. Slowly bring your hands and arms to the your side at shoulder level. Just as they go out of sight stop. Wiggle your fingers. Do you see your finger?

Then bring the arms backwards slightly more. Wiggle your fingers. Move your arms backwards at shoulder level until you just barely can’t see the fingers anymore.

You should be able to “feel” where your hands are but not see them. Typically your brain can perceive the motion through a sensory system called proprioception, in other words nerves telling your brain where the fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders are located in space. The eyes know where the hands are but they are just beyond sight and so the eyes work at seeing the hands. Often this results in an expanded peripheral vision system. You may need to move your hands further back in order not to see them as you practice this exercise and peripheral vision improves.