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Blinded by the Light
And why has no one figured this out before?

by Michael Braunstein

Online 2015.04.20

It took only a few seconds for me to realize it. I was lying in bed in the wee hours, staring at late night movies on TV. Most everyone in the music business in Los Angeles in the ‘70s and ‘80s knows the stare, the insomnia trance. Light from the TV was piercing my brain, not helping at all. But then I tossed a glance at the TV’s reflection in the bedroom window and noticed my eyes relaxed right away. Back to the TV. My eyes squinted and ached. Back to the reflection in the glass. Ahhh, that’s better. The realization: It’s easier on the eyes to watch TV in a reflection rather than directly.

Alright, admittedly it’s one of those “so what” moments. But my mind was swirling in the eddies of insomnia, remember? I wondered why the reflected version of the “Go See Cal” used car commercial was easier to take than the straight-in version. What was different about it? I knew the answer right away as I retrieved from memory Fr. Dressel’s physics class: Reflected lightwaves become polarized. So I figured that those waves coming from the source, the TV, were scattered, incoherent, and obviously harder to look at. Polarized waves were easier. A question long buried found an answer. Why is watching TV so hard on the eyes? What makes watching a film in a theatre easier? It’s all a matter of evolution.

Reflecting on reflections. For millions of years, the human animal has used vision as one of the most important of the senses. We grew to rely on visual cues for warning us of danger and as a primary evaluation of our surroundings. And of course, we can only see in the light. But think about that for a moment. What our eyes have developed to look at and to see is reflected light. We use our sight to scan our surroundings, near and far, and our eyes developed anatomically to capture light that is more or less coherent, polarized to some degree, by reflecting off the objects we see. When we look at a mountain, a tree, a saber-toothed tiger, a face, a chair, a dog or a dresser we are not seeing that object. We are seeing the lightwaves that reflect off that object. Even watching a movie in a theatre is but watching light reflected off a screen. And those waves, being reflected, have become coherent waves or polarized, as Fr. Dressel taught.

Sunny daze. For millions of years on planet Earth, the sun has been our primary source of light by which we see. The key: by which we see. The sun’s light is raw, scattered, incoherent and broad spectrum. It’s only when it is reflected that it’s useful for vision. It’s the reflection of the sun’s light that we look at after it has impinged the objects we see. When the light from the sun — or even artificial sources — is reflected off non-metallic surfaces, it’s polarized and coherent. That is how the human eye evolved — to see reflected light. Most of the light that has entered our eyes for millennia has been that way. In nature, when we look at a direct source of light — like looking directly into the sun — there’s hell to pay. Our eyes are not designed to stare into a source of light but rather to gather the light indirectly after reflection. Get it?

So all of a sudden comes along technology and advances our ability to create our own light sources. Oh, certainly it was crude at first, with fire, then candlelight. Then in a very brief span of time we invented gaslight, electric light, LEDs, LCDs, CFLs and any number of artificial light sources. This all happened in the blink of an eye, evolution-wise. We didn’t have time to evolve.

When we installed CRTs (cathode ray tubes) into televisions in the mid-twentieth century, we jumped the shark. With that, humans, for the first time in the history of our natural existence, began staring into direct, scattered, unpolarized light. In a real sense, staring into direct light has the same effect as staring into the sun but on an immediate, not solar, scale. It’s not good.

Fritz Perls and Occam’s Razor Dr. Fritz Perls was an eminent psychotherapist of the 20th century, capturing Zen, Freud and Gestalt all in one creative sphere. He was the embodiment of “be here now” and always coached, “Examine the obvious.” Meanwhile, the principle known as Occam’s Razor expounds a similar thought. That is, when multiple theories exist to explain a phenomenon, the simplest theory is likely the correct one.

Apply Perls’ Razor to the fact that current science is struggling to understand some of the bad effects from people staring at computers and televisions. These effects range from deteriorating eyesight to sleeping problems and who knows what else. As is typical, researchers are looking at very complex solutions such as blaming the “blue-light wavelengths” emitted from computer screens. Their solution: wear orange lenses to block the blue. None of their complex, reductionist answers will work though, because the truth is simpler than that.

The human eye is not designed to look directly at a light source. And that is exactly why we have trouble with staring at computer screens, TV screens, iPads and ebooks. They are not reflections of light. They are sources of light. We are staring directly into an incoherent, scattered bundle of lightwaves.

The arc of technological advance has outpaced and outdistanced the comparatively turgid advance of human evolution. Our bodies just cannot adapt and keep pace with the frenetic forward motion of technology spinning out of control. That much is obvious.

Be well.

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BONUS COLUMN: Biophobia - Humans are afraid of life.
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