Arjuna and the Troxler Effect

Light of truth


Prema Jayakumar

Everyone has heard the story of Arjuna, as a student, proving to his preceptor’s satisfaction that he was going to be a great archer. Asked to shoot a clay bird placed on a tree, his brothers and cousins saw the whole place, the people gathered, the tree and the bird. Arjuna saw only the bird and then only the neck of the bird that he had to aim at. And he shot it down. That is, his focus was so great that he was unaware of everything else around him.

This was an effort at concentration and lauded as such. But what if it had not been just to show he could aim well, and prove it by bringing down the bird, but he had got stuck there staring at the neck of the bird, unaware of the world around him. Because, even without such effort, ordinary people can physically lose sight of things around them or even before them. I was reading about an experiment, a rather scary one to my mind, where, on focusing on a figure in contrasting colour against a background that is softer in definition, you lose sight of the background completely after a while and can begin to see it only after you blink hard a couple of times. This is called the Troxler Effect or Troxler Fading after Paul Vital Troxler, eighteenth century Swiss physician and philosopher, who examined and proved the phenomenon. The Troxler Effect is an optical illusion. When one fixates on a particular point for even a short period of time, an unchanging stimulus away from the fixed point will fade away and disappear. The experiment is this: there is a dark, small figure placed in a fuzzy sort of background, sometimes plain, but more often with outlines and pictures, none of them well-defined. The subject of the experiment is asked to stare at the dark figure inside. After a while the subject ceases to see the background at all, which while fuzzy is not faint or difficult to see in the ordinary way.

The Troxler effect, if we can take that name in vain, when lived in the real world, can make life difficult. We have met people who are so focussed on something or the other that they forget the rest of the world, their families, the society that surrounds them. It might be concern for abandoned children, it might be a miscarriage of justice, it might be gender related, it might be revenge, a matter of getting the better of someone else, they devote years of their lives and all their efforts to that particular cause. In seeing only the dark dot or cross on the pale background of the Troxler diagram, they lose sight of the wider picture. Often the causes are just and need to be addressed. Sometimes the causes seem trivial to the outsider. Either way the obsession or focus leads to the fading of ordinary life around them, causing them to lose their own lives not by death but by disengagement, causing misery in people around them when they don’t get the attention of the obsessed person when needed. We might say admiringly from a distance, what a single minded man or woman that is, so devoted to their special cause. What it does to their lives and the lives around him or her can be seen only at close quarters. One feels afraid not only for them, but of them too because they lack some essential balance. From such people come the fanatics, the terrorists as well as the selfless saints and do-gooders.

The only thing to do is to step back, blink hard a few times and see that proper vision is restored to your eyes. This needs to be done every now and then, whatever your obsession, whatever the cause you devote your life to, good or ill. Even a cause that needs to be addressed and addressed urgently can only benefit from that stepping back and viewing it whole. A little distance, a rather large area of vision rather than a very narrow focus can only be good. So, let us move back a little, close our eyes and open them again a few times, so that we see a large area fairly well rather than a narrow focus extremely well.

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