Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

You're Not as Smart as You Could Be

by David G. Wittels


Mystery image

  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.

 On 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 is 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. But 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.

  That 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 be taught to read faster and understand better, and get keener eyesight as a bonus.  

  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 weeks.  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.

 College 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.

  Renshaw's father 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.

  He has 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 noticed 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 Ohio 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 various aircraft.  

  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 seeing.  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.

  This worked 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 projected anywhere.  

  "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 see anything.

  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 in seeing.

  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.

  Tachistoscopic 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 that, 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 second.

  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 look at them as wholes.  That is the natural way of seeing, and up to 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 developed print, so that the lines of demarcation are not quite sharp.  Puzzled by it, I hunted around for a clue.  A shaded part in the 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 mine.

  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 the subject.

  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 the job."

  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 basis.

  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.

  A quite 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 increase 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.

Part 1  -  Part 2  -  Part 3

Background courtesy of Eos Development