Earlier this week, an iPad app went live on Apple’s App Store that can improve your vision. Links to the app got a lot of popularity on Reddit over the last two days, which is how I stumbled across it. The Reddit headline promised that the app and its effects were “absolutely astonishing and 100% real,” a statement reminiscent of internet ads that couldn’t have possibly sounded more dubious. Common sense seems to dictate that if a person has a problem with their vision, they have a problem with their eyes. You have bad vision? Get glasses. But this train of thought ignores the brain’s role in vision, and the fact that visual impairment can be brain-based as well. A great example of how important the brain can be to visual processing can be found in optical illusions, like the one pasted below:
This illusion is a very common one that you have probably seen before. In the image on the left, the square labeled A appears significantly darker than the square labeled B, when in reality they are the exact same shade of gray, as proven by the image on the right. Illusions like this are meant to trick the brain by forcing it to interpret an image incorrectly. It is easy to assume that this illusion is exposing a flaw in our visual processing, when in reality it is highlighting an adaptation that is actually beneficial under normal circumstances. Viewing square B as darker than it actually is allows us to perceive consistency in the checkerboard pattern even under the distorting influence of the cylinder’s shadow.
This brings us back to UltimEyes, the iPad app that helps train your vision. The checkerboard shadow illusion above demonstrates how mental processing can allow us to take an ambiguous image and instantly recognize an underlying pattern behind it. Our brains have been trained since birth, with years of constant practice, to develop methods within visual processing that allow us to more accurately make sense of the world around us. While the cognitive strategies exploited by optical illusions were learned early in childhood, UltimEyes represents an attempt to train the brain further, concentrating on specific types of neurons within the primary visual cortex.
Previous research has identified that the primary visual cortex in the brain processes images as fuzzy, gray-scale blobs called Gabor patches. These patches have characteristics that are matched to the receptive fields of individual neurons. UltimEyes is designed to train your brain to more quickly recognize and process Gabor patches. The app itself is a series of challenges where faint Gabor patches materialize and slowly disappear into a deep gray background while the user is tasked with identifying and tapping each one as quickly as possible. This exercises the visual cortex, causing the neurons to form new and more efficient connections with each other. The end result, after daily training in 30 minute sessions, is improved visual acuity where objects seem sharper and more defined. While UltimEyes won’t ‘fix’ eyes that have ocular impairments, it can still improve the vision of people wearing glasses or contact lenses. Additionally, the changes caused by UltimEyes are long lasting, because they represent a physical restructuring of neural connections.
Developments like UltimEyes are interesting because they represent just how plastic our brains can be. Visual processing and other subconscious functions seem set in stone, but in reality they can be surprisingly malleable . Mental exercise can benefit the brain in much the same way that physical exercise can benefit the body as long as the right challenges are applied to the right groups of neurons.