David G. Wittels
Reading at a comfortable pace, and without
skipping, most intelligent adults will need at least twenty minutes to
go through [part 1 of] this article. Out at Ohio State University,
however, a college professor named Dr. Samuel Renshaw has trained two
students to read so swiftly that they could finish it in around five
minutes. He taught one to read at the rate of 1416 words a minute, and
the other, 1185. The average for college students on magazine material
is about 250 words a minute.
Renshaw is an experimental
psychologist, which means that he does laboratory research on what
makes people tick. He trained those students not as a stunt aimed at
creating a species of intellectual two-headed freaks, but as part of a
long series of experiments based on his belief that most people are
only about 20 per cent alive. That is not quite the way he would put
it, since, like most scientists, he is a bit addicted to scientific
gobblegook. But he has stated that the average Homo sapiens has
achieved only "on the order of twenty percentile utilization of the
sense modalities." Translated, it is an accusation that we use our
eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, sense of touch -- and minds -- at one
fifth or less of potential capacity.
That is not a
brand-new concept, William James having said somewhat the same thing
more than fifty years ago, and threads of it go back at least to
Aristotle. But Renshaw belongs to a small group of researchers who are
trying to do something about it. He holds the belief, which may be
naive, that people, like race horses, television and atom bombs, can be
improved. In thirteen drab classrooms and laboratories with
Rube-Goldbergian devices, on the fourth floor of a brick building on
the campus in Columbus, Ohio, he hunts for ways to teach people to see
better, taste more keenly and develop prodigious memories.
A pipe-smoking, terrier-like man who looks much younger than his
fifty-five years, Renshaw has been digging in that direction for more
than a quarter of a century. Most of his nuggets have come in the field
of vision, where he created the reading wizards. He believes that
reading skill is mainly a matter of seeing the right way, and that most
people don't know how to do that. "Proper seeing," he contends, "is a
skill which needs to be learned, like playing the piano, speaking
French or playing good golf." He claims that the eyes, like a pianist's
fingers, can be taught to perform with amazing virtuosity. Therefore he
teaches faster reading by training his students' eyes to see better.
the same general principles, he created what the Army and Navy
officially call the Renshaw Recognition System -- a method for
training men swiftly to spot airplanes and warships. During the recent
war it was a closely guarded military secret, and somehow it has missed
being publicized since. It officially is credited with saving
thousands of lives and an un-estimated number of airplanes and warships
by teaching the men to recognize aircraft more swiftly and accurately
than had been believed possible.
Renshaw has also
developed a revolutionarily new method for treating bad eyesight, which
he claims is usually due to lack of skill in using the eyes. In fact,
he argues that most cases of nearsightedness are due to psychological
rather than physical factors, and that they can be helped considerably
by training. With this, however, he has stirred up a hornet's nest.
While some eye doctors hail him as a great scientific benefactor,
others damn him as a fool and a charlatan. Incidentally, his method is
not to be confused with the one widely publicized in a book by Aldous
Huxley a few years ago, nor with any other of the so-called "muscle
exercise" systems. Except in technical journals, it has never
been printed before.
In all three matters -- reading
skill, recognition system and eye treatments -- Renshaw relies heavily
upon a gadget which, though he has improved it considerably, has been
used in experimental work for at least seventy-five years. It
merely a glorified magic lantern with an attachment for regulating the
length of time for which slides are shown on a screen. In scientific
terminology it is called a tachistoscope. To the layman, however, the
term "magic lantern" seems much more apt, because with it Renshaw and
his disciples get results which seem to savor of magic.
To give those two students their phenomenal reading speeds, he flashed
on slides containing from five to nine digits, at speeds ranging up to
one one-hundredth of a second, and asked them to try to remember and
repeat the numbers. That's all there was to it, for thirty-three
half-hour sessions. There was no practice in reading print.
as the students learned to recognize and remember numbers at that
speed, their reading time on books, magazine articles and newspapers
increased as if by a miracle.
Furthermore, when the coed
who hit 1416 words a minute was tested to see if she really understood
what she read at the amazing rate, she scored nearly 100 per cent in
comprehension. That was in itself quite a feat. The average educated
adult, given such a test immediately after reading an article at his
normal speed, usually will score about 50 per cent.
does not mean that everyone can equal the marks set by Renshaw's two
prize guinea pigs. They were extraordinarily brilliant students who,
even before he went to work on them, could read at 658 and 566 words a
minute, respectively. But Renshaw contends that everyone can
taught to read faster and understand better, and get keener eyesight as
With some additions, the experiment was
tried out on children in the first grade in schools in Texas City,
Texas, Gary, Indiana, and Bexley, Ohio. After the training the children
were able to read at third-grade levels, with some approaching
fourth-grade marks. Fifty-six engineers and scientists at the Battelle
Memorial Institute, one of the country's two greatest
metallurgical-research organizations, appealed to Renshaw because
pressure of wartime work got them so worn down that they could not keep
up with their necessary reading. After thirty sessions, each at the end
of a wearying day, their average had gone from 262 words a minute to
313, with several men increasing 100 words and one man going up 150. At
the same time their comprehension went from 52 to 85 per cent. That
meant that they were able to grasp in one reading reports which
previously might have required two or three readings.
Hearing of Renshaw's work, the General Electric Company hired Dr.
William C. Schwarzbek, who had worked with Renshaw in developing some
of his theories and who, as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, had
taught the Renshaw Recognition System. Schwarzbek, a brilliant research
psychologist in his own right, was given no specific job. His boss,
M.M. Boring, manager of technical personnel for General Electric,
figured out that the Renshaw-Schwarzbek theories ought to prove useful
somewhere in that huge organization.
At this writing,
Schwarzbek has put 120 employees, ranging from upper-bracket executives
averaging forty-five years of age to girl stenographers in their late
teens, through a thirty-six-hour course spread over twelve
Their average reading speed increased nearly one third, with one smart
young engineer jumping from 350 words a minute to 700; and their
comprehension soared to an average of 82 per cent. One executive
reported that whereas it used to take him six and a half hours to read
and answer his mail, now it takes him only four hours.
professors' salaries being what they are, Dr. Samuel Renshaw is not
averse to turning an honest extra dollar on outside projects. But he
has refused to cash in on popularization of his vision work. Recently
an engineer came to him with a proposition for manufacturing a
tachistoscope out of plastic and a wire spring. Renshaw shooed him
away. Fortunately, the mother of his two children, the former Vivian
Hart, who was a graduate student of his before they were married
seventeen years ago, understands why he doesn't want to get rich that
way. He believes that a crude tachistoscope, particularly in inexpert
hands, could do more harm than good.
served with the 12th Ohio Cavalry under General Sherman during the
Civil War, and practiced medicine in Fairfield County for thirty-five
years. Renshaw was in his junior year of a medical course when his
father died. To support himself, he took a job as a laboratory
assistant in a course in experimental psychology.
never even thought of going back to medicine since. Under the tutelage
of Prof. Albert P. Weiss, he became excited by the mystery of how we
see, and the problem of how to make fuller use of the gift of
sight. He worked at the problem for years without being
except by other scientists and by some optometrists who were
dissatisfied with the results they were getting from old methods. Then
suddenly World War II gave new impetus and meaning to his research.
Within a month after Pearl Harbor, two naval officers came to him for
advice on setting up aircraft-recognition courses in preflight
schools. One was Lt. Howard Hamilton, who, as secretary of
State University, had known of Renshaw's work. The other was
Hamilton's brother, Lt. Comdr. Thomas Hamilton, coach of the Navy
football team and now a captain and director of athletics at
Annapolis. They told Renshaw that the British had developed a
system which consisted of dividing planes into four parts and trying to
drill into the heads of the men the differences between those parts in
The idea of trying to recognize
anything by breaking it into parts outraged everything Renshaw knew
about how the eye and mind operate in the miracle called
He prescribed a program which began exactly like the reading-skill
course, with numbers flashed on a screen by a tachistoscope. Then he
added slides showing silhouettes of planes. He boldly predicted that
when flight cadets could recognize those magic-lantern pictures at
one-hundredth of a second, they would be able to do the same thing in
combat. Furthermore, he declared, in the same instant they would be
able to count the planes and tell how many of each kind there were.
When that kind of talk got to Washington, it, of course, sounded like
ridiculous -- even dangerous -- nonsense. A Navy brass hat came to
Columbus to give Renshaw his comeuppance. Renshaw put on a
demonstration with students. They missed only one plane out of twenty.
When the brass hat himself tried to match the performance of these
Renshaw-trained youngsters, he not only could not spot a single plane
at one one-hundredth of a second but on most tries saw only sudden
meaningless flashes. At least partly convinced, he recommended that a
Navy training school be set up at Ohio State.
out so well that within a few months a Navy command post was created
there, with Renshaw as civilian adviser. Eventually 4000 instructors
were trained there in the Renshaw Recognition System, and they in turn
trained 285,000 preflight cadets throughout the country. In addition,
every Navy ship which left port after the early part of 1943 had aboard
at least one recognition officer, schooled in Renshaw's method.
After a year and a half in the thick of the Pacific fight, one such
officer wrote: "We have never fired a shot at any of our own stuff, and
never missed a shot at a Jap."
The Army, too, adopted the
system, but now with quite the same degree of success. Renshaw claims
this was because the Army slashed the twelve-weeks' course he
recommended -- in some cases to as little as two weeks.
How do Renshaw's tricks work? To understand that, it is necessary first
to clear away some popular misconceptions. One of them is that the eye
is like a camera; that something clicks when light hits the eye,
resulting in an image on the back of the eyeball or somewhere in the
brain. Extensive experimentation has proved that no exact image is
"Most of the process of
seeing," Renshaw explains, "is not done by the eyes." His theory is
that the eyes act as hands which reach "out there" and grab meaningless
"things" and bring them inside to the brain. The brain then turns "the
things" over to memory and demands, "Hey, what the heck is this? Just
where out there is it, and how big is it?" Not until the brain gets an
answer and interprets it in terms of comparative action do we really
This free translation of his theories will
probably cause the precise-minded Renshaw to clutch his thinning hair.
However, to carry through with it, the answers in terms of comparative
action are somewhat like this: "That's an automobile. Duck, quick; it's
coming right at you! ... That's the word 'multitudinous,' which means
'a whole lot of.' ... That thing across the room is your wife."
Memory can give the fill-in for such answers because from infancy on we
have been touching things, handling them, reaching out, hearing,
tasting, smelling and comparing. A classic example of how we learn
distances and where things are in relation to us is contained in a
sixteen-millimeter movie of a tiny girl trying to sit down on something
she had never encountered before.
Toddling in the garden,
she came across a hassock-shaped stone about a foot high, and decided
that it would make an ideal seat for her. When within a few feet of it,
she turned around, backed toward it a couple of steps and plumped. She
was startled to find that it wasn't exactly where she tried to deposit
herself, nor was it quite as high as she had judged it to be. She got
up, looked reproachfully at the stone, put her hands on it, walked
around it, and then, with hands still on it, tried again. This time she
scored a bull's-eye. Thereafter she knew at a glance where that stone
was in relation to her posterior. But it wasn't her eyes which first
told her the truth; it was her hands. The lesson went into her memory
to help build up one of the sets of judgments which play a major role
This concept of how we see is not original
with Renshaw. Where he starts blazing a trail is in his militant
preaching that we can see better if we learn to do the whole
complicated process of seeing in one swift, smoothly co-ordinated
action. He compares this to the swing of a topflight golfer, which,
although it really consists of three parts -- backswing, down-stroke and
follow-through -- seems like one motion.
training, he claims, develops such a swing in seeing. The secret of the
tachistoscope lies in its speed. As long as the students cling to
awkward and haphazard ways of looking, the fast exposures cause the
numbers to seem blurred. Part of the reason may be that the students
don't believe they can see at one-hundredth of a second. Since that is
four times as fast as the wink of an eye, it does seem impossible. But
practically anyone can acquire the knack, and to highly trained
students one one-hundredth of a second is almost slow motion.
Scores of Renshaw's students have learned to grasp words, pictures and
strings of numbers at one two-thousandth of a second. Even
he believes, is nowhere near top possible performance. Currently he is
experimenting with exposures lasting only one three-millionth of a
second, which he achieves by hooking the tachistoscope to a General
Electic high-speed photolight, and two students repeatedly have grasped
nine-digit numbers exposed for that almost unimaginably tiny fragment
of time. But Renshaw is not ready to accept this as scientifically
proved evidence. He suspects that the high degree of illumination
furnished by the photolight may create an after-image which, in effect,
gives a longer look than one three-millionth of a second.
In his training course, Renshaw sticks to a top speed of one
one-hundredth of a second, coaxing the students to that point after
starting at one tenth with only two or three digits. After they have
learned to grasp figures such as 426937519 at one-hundreth, movies
taken of their eyes while reading print show the eyes sweeping over the
pages like graceful skaters on a frozen pond. They scoop whole
paragraphs at a glance. Renshaw insists that that means more than
merely muscular improvement; that it also shows better co-ordination
within the brain.
Still another factor involved in the
miracle of seeing is expressed in what is known as the Gestalt theory,
from the German word meaning "pattern" or "form." Renshaw drew heavily
on this theory in developing his system for recognizing airplanes. For
example, four equal lines going any which way may be confusing, but
when these same lines are joined to make a square, you have a thing
with a special meaning of its own. The beholder sees a form which he
immediately recognizes as a square, without needing to pause to
examine, count and compare the lines.
A picture of Miss
Betty Grable, fetchingly attired in next to nothing, has been used in a
more interesting demonstration of the same principle. It was used by an
instructor who was trying to teach the Renshaw Recognition System to a
group of soldiers by showing them slides of airplanes. Without warning,
he flashed the pin-up picture on the screen at one one-hundredth of a
Instantly the men began whistling and uttering wolf cries.
"What was that slide?" asked the instructor.
"Betty Grable!" they chorused happily.
"How did you know?" he demanded.
They saw he was serious. They thought it over. But the best
they could do was: "Heck, we just knew."
"Okay," he said. "Why can't you learn to recognize airplanes
the same way?"
The point is that we can recognize things from only a fleeting
glimpse. The quickest and best way to recognize things is to
at them as wholes. That is the natural way of seeing, and up
about six years of age, children see that way. They usually do much
better than their elders on the high-speed tachistoscope.
One of Renshaw's graduate assistants, Robert L. Maurer, recently
demonstrated this with his tiny blond daughter, Judy. She was three
years and nine months old when he brought her into the laboratory,
telling her only that she was "going to see some pictures." Though he
holds world records for grasping and remembering strings of digits at
high speeds, his baby beat him on recognizing pictures.
Nearly all adults lost most of the knack of seeing in wholes except on
the most familiar things. The loss usually begins when we got to school
and are confronted by the gigantic task of learning to read. Trying to
make sense out of collections of meaningless symbols such as a, b, c,
and so forth, we get into the habit of examining things piecemeal.
Then, even when we become educated enough to handle whole words and
paragraphs with ease, too often much of the bad habit persists.
Renshaw has a picture which he springs upon visitors to illustrate the
pitfalls of looking at things piecemeal. It is a poorly
print, so that the lines of demarcation are not quite sharp.
Puzzled by it, I hunted around for a clue. A shaded part in
upper right-hand corner seemed to vaguely look like the peninsula containing
Gibralter, or, I thought, maybe it was Italy. "I'm not good
enough at geography to place it exactly," I reported, "but the picture
is a map of a part of the world."
Every small child and
every tachitoscopically trained adult to whom Renshaw has shown it has
identified it instantly and correctly as a picture of a cow. But most
untrained adults, attacking it bit by bit, gave answers as ludicrous as
The speed of the tachistoscope doesn't allow such
misleading fooling around with parts. The observer is forced to make
one fast grab at the whole thing. Then other Gestalt principles take
hold. Even if the eyes are confronted by something at a highly
distorting angle or in a different proportion from what experience says
it ought to be, the brain can straighten it out, restore it to its
proper shape and reduce or enlarge it to its proper size.
Long before he developed the plane-recognition system or the training
for reading skill, Renshaw noticed that experimental work with the
trachistoscope seemed to improve the eyesight of the human guinea pigs.
This led him into the research and conclusions which have made him such
a controversial figure among eye doctors. Today he flatly declares that
in the overwhelming majority of cases of faulty vision, most of the
trouble is not in the eyes, but in how the owner uses them. Again he
pounds home his contention that seeing is an acquired skill, like
playing the piano or hitting a golf ball cleanly, and that, therefore,
it can be improved by proper training. All this remained a laboratory
matter until one day in 1939 when he was called upon to pinch-hit for a
sick colleague in addressing a scientific meeting. Having nothing else
prepared, Renshaw talked about his new hobby, which he called
"psychological optics." At the meeting were Dr. E.B. Alexander and Dr.
A.M. Skeffington, editors of the Optometric Extension Program, which
tells optometrists about advanced work in their field. They asked
Renshaw to submit an article a month for a year. Much to his surprise
and theirs, nine years later he is still writing an article a month on
At first the articles were coldly received.
The reaction of Dr. Fred W. Sutor, in Philadelphia, was typical. "I
wondered why space was wasted on such nonsense," he says. Eye experts
had been taught to believe that such things were due sometimes to
disease, but mostly to faults in the structure of the eyeballs. This
man seemed to be trying to say that they might be only bad habits.
Sutor kept reading only because, like many other optometrists, he had
noticed things in his practice not explainable by textbooks answers. He
had seen cases where the patients definitely were suffering from
nearsightedness, yet he could find little or nothing wrong with the
physical structure of their eyes. About all he could do was to supply
the kind of glasses which the textbooks said would compensate for
myopia. Often, when the patients came back a year later, they required
still stronger glasses. This steady turnover pleased the businessman in
him, "but left me wondering if I wasn't doing only fifty per cent of
He also noticed a queer thing happening with
patients suffering from presbyopia, or "middle-age farsightedness."
They could see well enough at arm's length. In such cases the
prescription calls for "plus lenses," which, in effect, move the print
from where the patient can't see it out to where he can. Conscientious
eye doctors warn such patients not to use the glasses except for
reading or close work.
Too often, however, the patients
don't bother to take off the glasses when shifting to more distant
looking. Though at first blurring does result, usually the patients get
used to the glasses. But Suter noticed that when such patients returned
a year or so later, they had become startlingly more farsighted.
"All of a sudden," he says, "what Renshaw was saying started to make
sense to me. According to the old rules, such things as focus,
convergence, accommodation and adaptation were determined by the
structure of the eyes. But here were these people with major changes in
their vision, but little or no change in the eye structure."
Like others who now follow Renshaw, Sutor decided that "the only
possible answer was that, confronted by blurred images when they tried
to see at a distance through glasses which interfered with distant
vision, they taught their eyes to sort of jump past the glasses. If
vision could be changed so drastically by unconsciously training the
eyes to do the wrong thing, why couldn't we learn to improve vision by
deliberately training the eyes to operate the right way?"
Today about 12,000 of the roughly 20,000 optometrists in this country
agree that Renshaw has something there, and about 4000 more or less
actively practice his theory. However, most ophthalmologists --
physicians specializing on the eyes -- turn a cold or even indignant
shoulder to it. Five major optometry colleges now teach his method, but
the rest, including the one at Renshaw's own university, do not.
Three years ago a group of medical men put Renshaw's theory to a test
in Baltimore. Their report damned it with faint praise. They said, in
effect, that while practically all cases showed some improvement, there
was no absolute proof that the method was a cure. The tone of the
report was partly Renshaw's own fault. A volatile, explosive man,
Renshaw occasionally has let himself be goaded into remarks which,
taken out of context, could be interpreted as claims that his method
could enable practically all sufferers from poor vision to give up
glasses entirely. The tests seem to have been made and weighed on that
In his formal scientific reports, however, Renshaw
makes no such claims, and when interviewed by this writer, he flatly
rejected as "preposterous" any idea that his method could enable
everyone to do without glasses. He wears glasses himself. He says that
he believes that in many cases they are necessary adjuncts, and that in
most cases, if properly chosen according to his examination theories,
they can be quite helpful. His only direct comment on the disparaging
Baltimore report was, "Old theories die hard. I have offered to bet any
opthalmologist or optometrist a thousand dollars that I can take any
case where there is no pathological condition or serious malformation
and tremendously improve vision through training. So far, the offer has
not been taken up."
Recently a young man was sent to
Sutor by a university clinic because, though he had a high I.Q., a
stiff college-entrance examination revealed that he read like a child
in the third grade. Apparently he had got through grade school and high
school by listening diligently to the teachers and to his classmates
when they recited the lessons. By standard test, his vision was 20-20,
which is fine. But by Renshaw's methods, Sutor discovered that the
young man did not use those fine eyes properly. Print appeared blurry
to him. Unable to see the printed symbols easily, he had practically
given up trying to interpret them. After training on the tachistoscope
and other devices, this young man was able to read well enough to pass
the college-entrance examination.
In another case, a
thirty-year-old chemist complained that lights hurt his eyes and that
he got violent headaches when he tried to read. He wore glasses which
had been prescribed to correct a slight case of esophoria -- failure of
the lines of vision of both eyes to converge properly -- but he kept
getting worse. After twenty training sessions, the headaches
disappeared, lights no longer bothered his eyes, and he could read for
hours at 360 words a minute with nearly 100 per cent comprehension.
Renshaw cites the case of a young girl who had been pronounced a "high
myope" -- in other words, extremely nearsighted. She had been started
on mild glasses when she was six, and given more powerful glasses
yearly, until at seventeen she was wearing lenses which resembled the
bottoms of soft-drink bottles. Still she couldn't see well except when
things were almost smack up against her nose. After Renshaw trained
her, she walked into the college chapel one day without her glasses. She
wept when she realized that, for the first time, she could see the
two-and-a-half-inch hymn numbers posted fifty feet from where she sat.
Renshaw contend that nearsightedness is almost always "an acquired
condition." People become nearsighted, he says, because some problem or
slight trouble, usually in childhood, causes them to concentrate on
close vision. Doing this, they either fail to learn, or throw away, the
ability switch sharp vision from near to far, and vice versa.
Though Renshaw and his disciples naturally disapprove of unsupervised
training, there are several exercises which can be practiced without
harm and which improve vision somewhat. One is simply a form of the old
game of Hunt. A dozen or so various small objects are placed
unobtrusively around a room, and then each person entering is supposed
to spot and name them as swiftly as possible.
useful exercise starts with holding a book at arm's length and reading
it while slowly bringing it as close to the face as possible. Then
suddenly shift the gaze to a far object across the room or out the
window. This stretches what is known as the "accommodative facility."
According to Renshaw, lack of such facility is a major factor in most
cases of nearsightedness and farsightedness.
But the most
interesting exercise, certainly for men, can be practiced while walking
along the street. The first step is to fix the gaze upon the legs of a
girl at least 100 feet ahead. Without shifting the gaze for even a
split second, try to judge as soon as possible whether the cars coming
alongside from behind are sedans or coupes or roadsters, and what makes
they are. At the same time try to notice as much as possible of the
house fronts or the goods in the store windows on your other side.
This exercise, of course, needs to be practiced circumspectly, and
preferably in strange neighborhoods. But it does help
form-field -- the range in which objects can be seen clearly without
turning the eyes or head. It also, somehow, develops sharper acuity.
When a man gets good enough at it so he can identify a car before it
draws completely ahead, and can at the same time decide whether he
likes the topcoat in the store window he is passing, he probably also
will be able to tell, more than 100 feet away, whether the seams of the
girl's stockings are straight.
Background courtesy of Eos Development