Averted Vision

By Karen A. Bellenir

At a recent book club meeting I attended, part of the discussion focused on a phenomenon related to the ephemeral nature of clarity or insight, something akin to an aborted eureka moment. All of the participants said they had experienced the problem. It goes like this:

In some area of perplexity—personal interests, family matters, world problems—for a brief moment, a person feels on the brink of a breakthrough in understanding. Diverse strands of knowledge coalesce in unexpected ways. Random strings of thought suddenly wrap themselves around a problem and tie a bow. But the bow doesn't last. As soon as the mind snaps to attention, the revelation begins to unravel. The brain tries to cling to the essence of what it almost understood, but the insight dissolves. Neurons scurry off, chasing the thought's remaining vestiges, but, like a dream at dawn, they're gone.

An old Star Trek episode (original series) reported on a similar concern. An alien group stole Mr. Spock's brain. When they finally agreed to give it back, the task of performing the necessary neurosurgery fell to Dr. McCoy. It was a feat well beyond his ability. The aliens had a solution, a device that would amp up Dr. McCoy's brain. Under the influence of the device, he was amazed at how simple the task seemed. He performed the operation. After the device was removed, however, the comprehension wafted away and he was left with the memory that profound knowledge was once almost within his grasp.

Astronomers know a similar phenomenon. When viewing dim, distant objects through a telescope, they use a technique called averted vision. Because the eye's peripheral vision is more sensitive to faint light than its central area, dimmer objects can be seen best if an observer doesn't try to look straight at them. When an object's light is too low for the eye's central vision, the object will simply seem to vanish if an observer tries to look directly at it.

Could it be that the most profound truths, the clearest perceptions of reality lie, just outside the point where the analytical human mind tends to focus? Perhaps insight and intuition, epiphanies and enlightenment lurk along the edges of the mind waiting to connect it to something beyond.