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How does Peripheral Vision Work?

By Adam Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Peripheral vision refers to the vision that lies outside the center of the field of sight, called the fovea. The vision which is near the fovea is called near-peripheral, while that which lies slightly further out is called mid-peripheral. At the very edge of our vision is far-peripheral vision.

When compared to many animals, humans have fairly weak peripheral vision, especially when it comes to distinguishing colors and precise shapes. Our peripheral vision is adapted to be able to understand shapes and forms to get a general impression of a situation. The fovea is far more adapted to distinguish fine detail and color. Even though we are not always consciously aware of this fact, it is easily observable. For example, we know that in order to read printed words on a page, we must trace the narrow center field of our vision back and forth over the text.

The distinctions between central, or foveal, vision and peripheral vision arise from differences in the anatomy of the cells which make up the retina, the part of the eye that receives light and transmits information into the optic nerve. The part of the retina where central vision occurs is heavily packed with cells known as cone cells, which perceive colors and fine lines.

Cone cells make up only a small minority of the retinal cells. The rest are known as rod cells, and these are best for taking in coarser and more general information. Peripheral vision, especially in the far periphery, is accomplished mainly by rod cells. These cells organize light from broad scenes and large objects and convert in into nerve impulses, which reach the brain via the optic nerve at the back of the eye.

The fact that our vision is much more precise and acute at the center of our field of view does not mean that peripheral vision is in any way inferior, just that it accomplishes a different purpose. Indeed, if our whole field of view were as precise as it is at the fovea, the amount of information our eyes sent to our brain would demand much more energy to process. The rod cells which accomplish peripheral vision are also responsible for our ability to see in low-light situations, such as at night. Cones only function to perceive color in well-lit environments. Even though this is a vital function, it would clearly be incomplete on its own.

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Discussion Comments

By anon300669 — On Oct 31, 2012

I have failed my peripheral eye test, but I have no obvious sight loss to me. One test was bad and another test with a different optician but the same DVLA machine was good. --Mick.

By Mammmood — On Oct 08, 2011

@NathanG - That’s an inconvenience, yes, but at least you don’t have any peripheral vision loss.

As long as you learn to adjust your focus back and forth, and up and down, as needed, you should have no problem. I have progressive lenses too and it takes awhile for your eyes and brain to adjust to the new lenses.

By NathanG — On Oct 07, 2011

I recently went in for an eye exam, and everything checked out okay for my current eyeglasses.

However, I complained about some eye strain because I work on the computer all day long. The doctor prescribed progressive lenses, or what used to be called bifocals.

These would allow my eyes to adjust easily from the computer monitor and the keyboard. They have helped a lot, and these are unlined, so they don’t look like the old-fashioned, lined bifocals.

However, everything has its side effects. I noticed that while the image close to the bridge over my nose is sharp and clear, there is some distortion in my peripheral vision – the area near the edges of the glasses.

Of course, this doesn’t happen if I shift my neck from the side; that’s the thing with these progressive lenses – you basically have to aim them at what you’re looking at.

By John57 — On Oct 07, 2011

If I am getting a migraine, my peripheral vision is almost non-existent. This is one of the auras that precede a migraine for me.

Sometimes I get dizzy and have some flashing lights, but if I experience the loss of my peripheral vision, I know for sure the headache will hit soon.

I guess the good thing about this is that I have a much better chance of keeping the migraine under control if I get started on medication right away.

Since this aura gives me chance to get head start on my migraine, I am often not down with it as long. If I didn't have this warning sign, it would take a lot longer for the migraine to go away.

By golf07 — On Oct 06, 2011

Most animals have really good peripheral vision, but I had a horse who had peripheral vision problems.

Because of this, she was very cautious when riding in an area she was unfamiliar with. I always wondered why she jumped so much when she suddenly came upon an object she was not aware of.

We figured out it was because she had poor peripheral vision. If she was looking at something straight on, she never had any problems. It was when she couldn't see from her peripheral vision that she had problems.

I always had to be extra cautions when we were galloping. Sometimes she would take a big jump sideways if she saw something too late.

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