Training the Brain and Eyes

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Remember that at the very beginning of this book I mentioned that one of the greatest misconceptions about astronomy is that it is a source of instant gratification. You cannot simply expect to look through the eyepiece of an amateur telescope, even a big one, or even an observatory class telescope and expect to see what shows up on those awesome photographs. All those beautiful galaxies that show up as swirling gorgeous pinwheels on photographs only show faint gray-green blobs in the eyepiece. So how can I see what is in those pictures?

Well the reality is that you cannot. The human eye is a wondrous instrument but it has limitations. Every image that falls on it is instantaneously transmitted to the brain without the opportunity to allow light to accumulate on the retina, so you can only see with what light is available in that instant. To see the detail that your telescope can show you, it's not just enough to mount eye to telescope. You must train the brain.

Your brain offers you several key tools that you can use to enhance the observing experience. The first is your ability to learn. You try something and it does not work. Do you try the same thing again? No, of course not! You try something else and get a different result. You try as many different variables on the same problem as you can think of until you create the result you are looking for. This is learning by experience. This can be frustrating over time because you may make an awful lot of mistakes before the proverbial light comes on. I can't begin to tell you how many rolls of film I've wasted over the years making bad exposures trying to figure it out. But in time I did. I've learned to make very beautiful wide field panoramas by properly adjusting for all the variables. You can also learn through education. You can train yourself by finding someone who knows how to do it and learning from them, you can save a lot of time and frustration, but you don't necessarily learn from your mistakes as much. Also be careful whom you choose as a teacher. Many legendary athletes were failures as coaches because they could not teach. Just because someone is a very good observer or astrophotographer does not mean that they are someone who is able to teach you anything at all. You should also always remember that if one really loves what he is doing then knowledge is both contagious and self-perpetuating. The more knowledge you have, the more you want. Seek out as much knowledge as you can about the objects you view. In the chapters ahead we will prime the brain by learning not only the science and physical characteristics of the objects we study, but also a bit about their history and mythology and about our explorations and studies and the things they have taught us.

The second key tool the brain possesses that is critical in the process of learning is the power of insight. The human brain creates insights by the gathering of perceptions and grouping them into meaningful wholes. A perception in turn is any sensual stimulation (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) that has real meaning to the perceiver. If I look at two objects, say a potted plant that sits to the left of a table. The spatial relationship of the plant and table constitute a perception. If I stand on the opposite side of the table, the plant and table have the opposite spatial relationship. By combining the two perceptions together, you create an insight, the knowledge of what the true three-dimensional spatial relationship of the plant and the table is. Learning is enhanced when all senses are used to gather perceptions, but in astronomy we principally use only sight. Sound, smell, touch and taste are just not used at the telescope. Keeping your eyes healthy, rested and trained is therefore most critical to the process of gathering perceptions both in quality and in quantity. Studying and gaining knowledge is also crucial. Remember that knowledge speeds the creation of insights by allowing more orderly assemblage of perceptions by increasing the "real meaning" of each perception.

Insight and learning are augmented by something else that only humans can do and that is imagine. If you obtain a perception from observation of a moon of

Jupiter hovering just below one of its poles, you know it is not directly underneath Jupiter but must be in front of it or behind it. If you combine the perception at the eyepiece with information gathered through study, say the knowledge of which way Jupiter's axis is inclined, your imagination enables you to visualize a three-dimensional view of where that satellite actually lies. When you look at a faint galaxy and can only see the core, your imagination, combined with some education and study can show you where those spiral arms are so that you know where to look and exercise perhaps some averted vision. By no means should you see something that is not there but you should combine your insights and knowledge to allow you to see where before you could only look. In the chapters ahead we will use all these tools that you possess along with the equipment used to create those perceptions. Through exercise, practice and repetition you train your brain and get the maximum capability out of the entire observing system.

Unless you live in southern California or the desert southwest, you will not be able to get out and observe every night because Mother Nature will periodically shut down the sky. These nights are great for brain training. Pick up a book (like this one) or perhaps a copy of a current or even non-current astronomy magazine. Don't pick up anything too non-current though because astronomy is a dynamic science that is always changing. Information can become obsolete very quickly. The astronomy periodicals are well written documents that can be very educational. Astronomy magazine is written at a bit more of a basic level while Sky & Telescope is written at a somewhat more advanced level.

The eyes, like the brain also need to be trained. Remember that perfect vision is not required in the early twenty-first century. In Chapter 1, we discussed means of maintaining ocular health and various means of coping with ocular pathologies. We also discussed the techniques of dark adaptation and averted vision to best prepare the eye for the observing session and make use of the parts of the eye best suited for observing in minimal light. The eye works together with the brain to form and process images. As the muscles of your body grow stronger through exercise so does the eye. The more you view in dim light, the more your eye will be able to detect lower and lower levels of light. The simple principles of adaptation to changing environment and physical conditioning work here the same as they do in the gym. You will notice this as you observe more frequently. Your eyes will progressively be able to detect objects that are fainter as you learn more how to use the eyes and as their performance progressively improves. An aviation physician noting my deteriorating vision suggested to me that a simple way to gain optical strength is to train with an eye chart. As you practice you will be able to progressively read further and further down the chart. The more you practice the stronger you will get. I found that the weakening of my eyes stopped and even reversed itself slightly.

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