Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Latest Updates: Biden drops out

Not just for seeing: Your eyes have predictive powers too, UW researchers find

Julio Cortez
The Associated Press file
A new finding by University of Washington researchers explains how a baseball player can connect with a 100 mile per hour fastball. And it also reveals something about how we navigate our everyday world.

Your eyes are doing a lot more than seeing something. University of Washington research shows cells in the retina help you predict the path of moving objects.

Michael Manookin teaches ophthalmology at the UW School of Medicine. He and his research colleagues wanted to know how powerful cells are in translating information about motion.

“And we were surprised to see that they actually contain a huge amount of information about where objects are likely to be in the future so that sort of information is abundant in the signals they’re sending to the brain,” he explained.

Manookin uses the example of a baseball player reacting to a 100 mph fastball. It’s well on the way to the plate before the brain even gets a visual signal. It’s only because tiny neural circuits in the retina predict where the ball is headed that the player can swing in time.

“If there aren’t active processes going on in our brains to use information about where that ball has been in the past in order to estimate where it’s going to end up, then baseball would be impossible," Manookin said. 

So would driving a car or conducting any number of tasks that require us to know where things are going, he adds. 

“Our visual systems are just hard wired. They’re built for doing this.”  

Manookin says the research holds promise for helping restore meaningful vision to people suffering from blindness.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.