WORDS Leroy Hudson
ILLUSTRATION Russ Atkinson
I’ve been a screen addict since the 80s, and a compulsive reader before that, so it came as a huge shock in my twenties when I temporarily lost the the ability to see. Over the course of a few days my eyesight deteriorated from what felt like 20-20 vision to everything outside a darkened room melting into a hot, painful blur.
I couldn’t read, use screens, drive or even shop, and although I soon learned that I was going to recover I had a period of several weeks where I couldn’t risk using my eyes to entertain myself. The worry of potentially losing my sight was replaced by a different kind of anxiety, of wondering if I could handle the boredom. This was melodramatic and seems funny now, but I eventually learned a lot from the experience. I came to understand that there are alternatives to spending all of your time looking at things.
Take sight away and it becomes obvious how much of our lives involve, if not staring slack-jawed at a glowing rectangle, at least being able to focus on faces and basic shapes. Although I was lucky enough to learn that my problems were caused by a combination of severe eyestrain, migraine headache and undiagnosed short-sightedness, I had never spent so long away from screens as an adult. I’m not the type of person who watches TV for hours on end, or even every day, but when you combine a workday based around the computer with an evening routine where spare time could involve video gaming, the cinema or more computer. It requires a big adjustment to entertain yourself for weeks without the use of your eyes. This incident occurred pre-iPhone, but even prior to the smartphone most of my communication was screen-based, so I wasn’t just bored, I was also deprived of human interaction. It’s hard to get people to visit you when you voice call them for the first time in months, hysterically refuse to get in a car and insist that your house must remain screen-free and darker than Dracula’s bedroom.
SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL
After a few days of what we’d now call “first world problems” I managed to pull my head out my bottom and told myself I had no right to wallow in self-pity. Plenty of people suffer from visual impairments, and not temporary ones such as mine, and beyond that millions of humans around the world manage to entertain themselves without screens or even books. I resolved to become less bored by shifting attention to my other senses. My first thought was that I’d spend my time listening to music, but even though I already spent four or five hours a day listening I hadn’t appreciated that I usually do that whilst I’m using my eyes to do other things – from cooking and housework to video games and writing. Deprived of accompanying stimulus, listening to non-stop music got dull within a couple of days, although this did lead to a breakthrough. I came to realise that my inability to entertain myself without looking at things wasn’t simply a matter of habit, it was fundamentally an issue with my powers of concentration. After sulking for a few hours in both silence and darkness I began to understand that my problems originated in some deeply-ingrained habits that influence how I process the information I get from the world.
The challenge in losing the ability to see lay in understanding how much we rely on sight as our primary sense. I see the world before I smell or hear it, and so instantly notice the absence of anything to look at. In contrast, I regularly have periods where I’m not conscious of actively hearing very much (being underwater perhaps), and this is equally true of touch, smell and taste. Sight is my active sense, flitting around from near to far, refocusing constantly on new sites for my attention, whereas I’m used to prioritising the other senses less directly and letting them fill in the background. This has become an issue in modern life for many reasons, one of which is that we’ve come to rely on the screen as the main way of transmitting information.
There has been a corresponding increase in the amount of visual data we’re used to taking in and so we’re habituated not just to staring, but idly glancing at phones, computer screens and televisions for large proportions of our day. As our visual bandwidth has increased there are few manmade spaces that haven’t kept pace by flooding the slightest gap in our attention with text and images. If the world was as full of sound as it is with visual noise we’d be deafened, but I found that dialling down that visual stimulation initially caused intense boredom and anxiety. We laugh at teenagers glued to their phones on tropical holidays, but the rest of us aren’t far off.
LOOKING WITHOUT SEEING
In dealing with my unscheduled screen break my mistake was that I had tried to get over the anxiety of being unable to see by focussing intently on my other senses, but it only began to help me when I was able to accept that it it isn’t necessary to be intensely stimulated all of the time. Although I came to rediscover the pleasure of audiobooks, podcasts and BBC radio, I also listened to a lot of material about mindfulness and meditation. This helped me realise that it was a choice to be fully concentrated on anything. A common mindfulness exercise is to ask people to close their eyes and very slowly chew a raisin, to feel the texture of a piece of fabric, or to walk slowly without focussing on a destination. The aim is to nudge your mind away from constant activity into a state of calmness and rest, through an appreciation of subtle sensory input. Stimulation can come but it can also go, drifting across your consciousness like a cloud. I’m aware that this might sound like wooly hippy nonsense, but even the most frantic amongst us will hopefully have parts of our lives where we benefit from the same state that the mindfulness people are trying to describe. It might come from dozing in the sun, relaxing quietly after a good meal, or sitting on the toilet with a good book. One of the aims of mindfulness is just to shift the balance so that we have more of that kind of time. I didn’t see it this way at the time, but being forced to minimise my most active sense was a valuable opportunity to learn about the ways I concentrate. I was and remain a very anxious person, but I was able to go from being stimulated by visual information almost the entire time I’m awake to sitting quietly for an hour or two, enjoying nothing more than ambient sounds. Whilst for most people it won’t be practical to take several weeks to work this out for themselves, mindfulness experts recognise the number of things competing for our time and there is a lot of advice out there tailored to busy, over-stimulated people. You don’t need to spend weeks in a darkened room to experience the benefits, not just of resting your eyes, but of learning to experience the world without flooding your senses with information.