Making sense of nature: sight

can you see me?


Our sense of sight is incredibly important to us. It is our primary sense with which we perceive about 80% of the world around us. It often does not work alone and the senses meet and greet in the brain to provide a richer tapestry than one sense alone could have. In that way we can also sense-check the world around us.

Even the way we apply ‘seeing’ in our everyday language denotes it’s importance; ‘see you later’. Sight has a (disputed) place at the top of the hierarchy of senses.  Humans rely more heavily on their sight than any other animal.

The brain can process images in as little as 13 milliseconds and can go on to process around 36,0000 pieces of information an hour. That’s a lot of data. And this, in a busy, information-heavy modern world can present us with a processing challenge. We need to filter it in order to both make it relevant and manageable. But doing this can ‘blind’ us to much of the world about us. Habituating this means that over time we can become both tunnel-visioned in our seeing and therefore also our thinking. Sherlock Holmes, fictitious though he was, was an example of intense observation linked to the sense-making power of the brain. Noticing things and being curious about them is a critical faculty in evolving, in sense-making, in ‘mindfully’ experiencing exuberance, ecstasy and awe. We just need to see that these things are already all around us in abundance.

Being blind to some things around you may have the benefit of being able to focus on what might matter but by the same measure you will be blind or disconnected by all those things you don’t see. Disconnection and connection are significant players in our lives and our health.

We have developed a very efficient and specific visual system that relies mainly on the central 5 degrees of our Field of View (which is about 120 degrees). 8 degrees marks the end of our ‘para-central’ vision. The rest of it becomes increasingly peripheral. For every 2.5 degrees from centre our acuity declines by 50% and then at about 30 degrees it falls away much more steeply. This means that much of this information and much of our sense making comes through a very narrow aperture.


Between the hours of dusk and dawn this becomes a little more problematic due to how the cone and rod cells are distributed over the retina. Cone cells, which are more sensitive to colour, are densely packed in the centre – mainly because we need light to see colour…so daytime is when we have light. However rod cells, which are much more sensitive to light are less dense in the centre and peak in density at about 18 degrees from our central view tailing off much more gradually towards the edge of our field of vision. These rods are also very sensitive to movement. It makes sense because movement is detected through changes in brightness from a moving surface. This means that good night vision and good movement detection is biased firmly towards our fuzzy and unfocussed peripheral vision.

This combination of narrow vision and useful sensing abilities that are placed in peripheral places means that we miss a lot around us. In nature there is a wealth of movement, colour, light and shading that envelopes our little spheres of existence. To truly connect with it, to appreciate it, and to therapeutically benefit from nature we need to be able to open our eyes, widen them and to ‘see, sense and sense-make’ more of its story.

Our nature and forest therapies put a strong focus on seeing, sensing and sense-making as a means to physically, mentally and emotionally connect to our environment and also to ourselves.

We have already blogged about how our senses play a significant part in emotional memory and our experience in using sensory awareness with clients around trauma, anxiety and memory issues. We are very interested in developing our thinking and practice around nature-based sensory ‘flooding’ in relation to nature immersion as a therapeutic activity for a range of disorders. We are also exploring sensory overload, due to modern information demands, and how gentle, nature-based recalibration of the senses can help. We are also quite excited about gaining a better understanding of the the potential of EMDR in conjunction with a safe, relaxed, natural setting as an effective way of dealing with trauma.


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