Many of our experiences online have been shifted by the coronavirus pandemic, with Zoom video calls replacing in-person classes, job meetings , conferences and other activities. Can our vision be impaired by all the screen time?
Probably not. According to research from Psychology Professor and Cognitive and Brain Sciences Coordinator Peter Gerhardstein ‘s lab at Binghamton University, our visual experience turns out to be highly adaptable.
In an upcoming issue of the academic journal Perception, Gerhardstein, Daniel Hipp and Sara Olsen — his former doctoral students — will publish ‘Mind-Craft: Exploring the Impact of Digital Visual Experience on Improvements in Orientation Sensitivity in Visual Contour Perception.’ Hipp, the lead author and key research originator, is now at the Laboratory for Clinical and Translational Research of the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System. Olsen, who developed testing stimuli and assisted in interpreting the findings, is now in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.
“The finding in the work is that the human perceptual system easily responds to a drastic shift in the visual environment statistics, which is what happens when anyone plays video games, as we demonstrate,” Gerhardstein said.
The experimentations

The study focuses on a fundamental vision element: our perception of environmental orientation.
Take a stroll across the Nature Preserve of Binghamton University and look around. Stimuli are focused at several different angles — trees, leaves, bushes, roads. There is a small predominance of horizontal and then vertical planes, according to an analysis by Hipp,—think of the land and the trees — but no lack of oblique angles.
“Then imagine a cityscape’s” carpentered world “— downtown Binghamton, maybe. Although the obliques fall down, the ratio of horizontal and vertical orientations increases significantly. The cityscape is a world of sharp angles, like the corner of a rectangle: houses, roofs, sidewalks, lampposts. The digital world ramps up the horizontal and vertical planes’ predominance, Gerhardstein explained.
Research suggests that, at least in the lab, we appear to pay more attention to horizontal and vertical orientations; these variations are probably not apparent in real-world settings, although they certainly still influence actions. Painters, for instance, appear in their work to intensify these differences, a subject of a separate study community.
A basic aspect of how our brain and eyes work together to create the visual world is orientation. Interestingly, it’s not fixed; as the group’s two experiments demonstrate, our visual system may respond to changes rapidly.
The first experiment created an eye tracking system that does not need an overt response, such as touching a screen. Before and after showing them visual stimuli, the second had college students play four hours of Minecraft — one of the most popular video games in the world. Researchers then calculated the ability of subjects to detect phenomena using eye-tracking m m in the oblique and vertical / horizontal orientations.
A single session created a shift that was clearly observable. While the screen-less control group displayed no improvements in their vision, horizontal and vertical orientations were more readily identified by the game players. In oblique orientations, neither group adjusted their vision.
Even though Gerhardstein speculates that the vision of the game-playing research subjects probably returned to normal quickly, we still don’t know how temporary these changes are.
Therefore, the immediate takeaway is the remarkable degree to which the young adult visual system can respond rapidly to changes in the visual environment statistics, “he said.”

Gerhardstein ‘s lab will monitor the visual growth of two groups of children in the next step of testing, one allocated to play video games on a daily basis and the other to minimize screen time, including television. There could be no major differences if the current experiment is any indicator, at least when it comes to orientation sensitivity. The pandemic has placed in-person testing plans on hold, while researchers have provided local parents with a survey on children’s playing habits and will use the findings to design a report.

Vision adaptive

Other research groups that have studied the influence of digital exposure on other facets of visual experience have reported that, at least some of which are perceived as beneficial, long-term improvements do take place.

Very helpful? Humans appear to adapt entirely to the environment they encounter, like all species. In 2008, the first iPhone came out, and in 2010, the first iPad. With these devices, children who are about 10 to 12 years old have grown up and will live and work as adults in a digital environment, Gerhardstein pointed out.
“To build a visual system that is highly responsive to this unique environment, is it adaptive for them? Many would say it is,” he said. “Instead, I would propose that the most adaptive would be a highly flexible device that can easily shift from one perceptual ‘set’ to another, so that observers react appropriately to digital environment statistics when communicating with digital media, and then shift to react appropriately to natural scene or cityscape statistics.”
Source of Story: Binghamton University-provided materials. Original by Jennifer Micale, published. Note: For style and length, material can be edited.
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