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  • Writer's pictureShannon Reyenga

Can Retinitis Pigmentosa be a blessing?

Updated: Apr 18, 2018

It doesn't take a genius to figure out there are downsides to losing your vision. But, a study published by Motivation and Emotion suggests tunnel vision may be an advantage in athletics.

The bruises, the dependence on others for rides and the feelings of getting lost in my own house are thoughts that come up when I think about losing vision. For many of us with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) or usher syndrome, vision loss is a slow and lifelong process. It starts with night blindness and continues with the narrowing of the visual field and eventually leads to blindness. It’s hard to think of tunnel vision as a blessing, but could it be?

Shannon poses in front of a large tree branch next to her. She is smiling and pointing at her head. She is dressed in hiking clothing - a t--shirt, shorts and a camelback backpack.
Posing next to a branch I ran face first into on a hike. Unfortunately, I was using my tunnel vision advantage to focus on my feet instead of the trail ahead. D'oh!

The benefit of focus, or narrowed attention, was highlighted in a study published in Motivation and Emotion in December 2014. Researchers found that a narrowed attention could make distances seem shorter while walking.

Here’s what they did

Two sets of participants were asked to walk though the same course. One set of participants received instructions to narrow their attention and focus on a traffic cone that marked the finish line. The other set was asked to act naturally and glance at the cone as well as look at their surroundings.

The result

According to the study, participants in the narrowed attention group perceived the cones to be 28 percent closer than those in the natural condition group. Participants in the narrowed attention group also walked 23 percent faster and perceived the walk to require less physical exertion than the natural condition group.

Narrowed attention is a natural condition for someone with RP. While it can mean running into a tree branch on a run, could it also make us more focused athletes and employees? I guess it could mean focusing on the right thing. For Rebecca Alexander, who has Usher Syndrome Type 3, that goal was climbing to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro. For Willie Brown, who has RP, it was becoming mayor of San Francisco.

Let’s face it, there are a downsides to going blind - this is not a post by Pollyanna. Athletes likely won’t be opting for tunnel vision surgery in the future. But, when the odds are stacked against you as a visually impaired person, it’s great to be able to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.

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