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AN Interviews Professor Aaron Seitz

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Athletics Nation interviews Professor Aaron Seitz, a Neuroscientist at the University of California, Riverside, who has created a new app ( a video game) that conditions users to see farther (among other visual improvements).

Perfect Vision
Perfect Vision

The A's Secret Weapon Series

A team of UCR psychologists -- Professors Aaron Seitz and Daniel Ozer and Ph.D. graduate Jenni Deveau -- combined multiple perceptual-learning approaches into a new visual training program in the hopes they would transfer to real-world tasks.

The study,  "Improved vision and on-field performance in baseball through perceptual learning".  Was published in the Feb. 17 issue of the peer-reviewed Current Biology.

The innovative brain-training research participants included 37 members of the 2013 University of California Riverside (UCR) Men's Baseball team (all male; age range 18-23).

Nineteen position players participated in the vision training procedures and served as the trained group, 18 pitchers served as the untrained control group.

There were 30, 25 minute sessions, spread out over two months. 11 of the 19 trained players played in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons and subsequent analyses focus on these players.

And the results?

  • UC Riverside baseball players who participated in the research saw significant improvement in vision, resulting in fewer strikeouts and more hits. They created more runs; and even accounting for maturation gains, these additional runs may have led to an additional four to five team wins.
  • UCR's year-over-year improvements were at least three times greater than the rest of the league in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks and strikeouts, the researchers determined.
  • Players who participated in the training saw a 31 percent improvement in visual acuity; greater sensitivity to contrasts in light, and both better near and far vision.


Seven baseball players achieved almost super-human ( 20 / 7.5 ) vision. (For comparison; a Bald eagle has 20 / 4 or 20 / 5 vision.)

What this means is, if a batter with perfect (20 / 20) vision can see something clearly at 7.5 feet away, the ( 20 / 7.5 ) batter can see that same thing clearly at 20 feet away.

Stretching that out a bit, if a batter with perfect (20 / 20) vision can clearly see a baseball at 22.5 feet away, the ( 20 / 7.5 ) batter will see that same ball clearly at 60 feet away.

So if were looking for secret weapons,  this study seems like a good place to start.  What exactly would the A's need to know to get this training started? Let's just ask the Neuroscientist who did the study.  In part one we talk about some of the specifics of vision in the study. In part two, we talk more on how this will help a baseball team.



Scott Parker (otherwise known at Athletics Nation as OmahaHi):  How are you?

Professor Aaron Seitz: Good, yourself?

Scott Parker: Great! Glad to hear back from you.

Professor Seitz: It's been an insane week for me.

Scott Parker: So lets get right into it.

Question: What is your background in Professor Seitz?

Professor Seitz:

My research is actually in this field of perceptual learning. It concerns the situations where the sensory and perceptual systems of the brain are modifiable by experience.

Before this study; I did lots of basic research studies trying to understand when is a visual system adaptable and when not. Also how do you direct attention or apply reinforcement, or things like that, in order to make the visual system work better.

Question: How did you think of this particular study?

Professor Seitz:

For years, I've been doing basic research studies looking at individual mechanisms.

For instance, one study I did was I food and water deprived people and I had them stare at a computer screen with no task. I had a little drop of water that came through a tube into their mouth that whenever that drop of water came, I also depicted a stimulus on the screen, ones they didn't even know were there.

I was able to show that this classical conditioning approach was able to make people better able to see that pattern when it was tested later. This tells me about  Neuroplasticity in the visual system, but what I was missing from this was having something that had real world applicability.

What I wanted to do with this project was try and take everything I have ever learned from the basic research studies of perceptual learning, throw them together into a game framework, and see if I could actually do something which would make people see better and that's what ended up happening.

Question: Can other senses possibly be trained?

Professor Seitz:

Absolutely. There's a lot of research looking at similar processes with the auditory system, and with Haptics. There's even people who do this research with taste.

A classic example is wine tasting. With experience, unfortunately, what ends up happening is cheap wine doesn't taste very good and you have to move more and more to expensive wines. It's the same type of perceptual improvement.

What most of these studies find are effects that are fairly specific. So being better able to distinguish wines does not necessarily mean your better at distinguishing say ice cream flavors.

In vision, the classic perceptual learning study is to train someone to better distinguish a visual pattern of noise. But it will not necessarily make you see better if you see that same pattern in a different place in a visual field, or if its rotated differently, or even sometime's if it's shown to the other eye.

So perceptual learning effects tend to be really specific to the training conditions and what I've done here is to try and come up with something that will actually generalize. I think the same thing could be done with other senses but for each application one needs to spend some time actually getting it right.

Question: What part of the brain controls vision?

Professor Seitz:

The way that works is that your eyes will first send information to the Thalamus which is in the mid-brain.

Then to the Cerebral cortex which is the very back of your head. So the primary visual cortex and the first part of the visual cortex that gets information from the eye is in the back of your head. Then there's about 40 percent of your brain, from the back of the head up to the top, and around to the side where there's a lot of other areas of the brain that are involved in vision.

What we think is going on in this game is that it's broadly exercising many of these different visual areas, and that the combined effect is to improve our overall sense of vision.

Question: I was curious about sides of the brain because on average people improved in one eye over the other eye. What is your guess on what could be the reason?

Professor Seitz:

That's an excellent question and it's something we are trying to collect more data on now. I can think of two reasons that have the completely opposite issue.

One is they might get more improvement from the dominate eye, because dominant eyes do more of the work. The other is that people might improve more in the recessive eye, because the recessive eye has more to catch up on. I honestly don't know which of those two it is, or whether it's different for different individuals.

We have definitely been adding to our tests;  tests of eye dominance, so we can figure out if that's an issue or whether it's something else. Right now what we find is it's not actually in terms on which eye is better; but in terms on whether someone's near vision or far vision or contrast sensitivity improves the most and that differs a lot across people.

The reason for that; and the ability to predict what type of benefit a person will have, is something that were working towards. Right now there is a lot of guess work. There is a lot more questions raised by the study than there were questions answered.

Question: It was reported that the ballplayers had 1) greater peripheral vision; 2) they saw the ball better and; 3) they were able to better distinguish lower contrast objects. Where there other reported benefits beyond those three?

Professor Seitz:

With the peripheral vision, that was a self-report. There was another study I published in the Journal of Vision Research; it wasn't with a baseball team but another set of subjects, where I did measure peripheral vision and I found that it got better.

I did not test that directly with the baseball team; but with the program in general, what we found is that it improves both visual acuity and contrast sensitivity both central vision and peripheral vision, and it seems to improve both near and far vision as well.

There's also some other things that we are looking into now to try and understand to what extent it improves processing speed and stereo vision. We have some preliminary results that suggest that it probably does. There is more analysis to do and we need to run some controls.

The program is designed to really generally exercise the visual system including high level aspects of vision like attention and such, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of research subjects to fully describe which things are getting better and which things aren't. That's something I'm working on now.

Question: I was hoping now that I have hit middle age; and no longer have 20/20 vision, that someday I could do this program and then be better and more confident driving at night.

Professor Seitz:

That's something I think the program will have positive effects for. One of the big focuses of the training is with contrast sensitivity, which transfers a lot to night vision. So my expectation is that the program would help your night vision. However what I do not have is a peer reviewed research paper that shows that.

There are certain things that I'm pretty confident it's going to be a benefit for; there are other things I'm curious about; and then there are still other things that both I know and I've been able to show in a reliable way.

Question: Since your study has come out, where have you been seeing the most interest?

Professor Seitz:

There's a bunch of different areas. A lot of people with low vision have been contacting me and looking for help which is nice, because a major part of my research is applying my research to people with low vision.

Then there is a lot of people in athletics that have shown interest; everything from little league to majors. I don't know which ones will actually develop into more studies but it has been an interesting week.

Question: Where do you see psychology based perceptual learning going in the next 10 years or so?

Professor Seitz:

I think that it's part of this larger movement that's been happening for the last few years in brain training.

Classically, we have this idea of use it or lose it.  We also know that past your mid 20's pretty much all aspects of your cognition; other than things like vocabulary, are declining with age.

Where there has been a big movement over the last 30 years trying to improve your physical fitness approaches, it's really been only the last few years that people have been starting to adopt multiple approaches to mental fitness.

My Ultimeyes program and a few others have really helped make the proof of principle that one can use a training program based upon perceptual learning and improve ones vision. But these programs still have a lot of room for improvement. The game could be more fun and the approach could be one that would yield bigger effects for more visual skills.

There is still a lot of things that will be understood about it. So my guess is over the next 5-10 years we are going to see more and better studies. Not just for vision; but for other senses and then also for memory and other aspects of cognition as well.

Question: Is it possible these exercises lead to physiological changes?

Professor Seitz:

Yes. One thing that I'm still trying to figure out is exactly what the changes are, but it certainly is effecting how neurons in the brain are processing,

People argue about whether a lot of the changes are with neurons in early visual cortex, or neurons in higher visual areas, or whether it's neurons that are feeding back from higher visual areas to lower visual cortex. Ultimately the properties of neurons in the brain are changing.

That is the physiological process. A lot of my research is trying to understand what these physiological changes are and it will take quite a number of years to better describe these.

Question: From the study.
You're not sure if brain training changes in vision were "solely" responsible for the baseball batters improved play, or if the brain training "combined with unmeasured factors" were responsible for better batter performance. Are you able to tell me any of the candidates for "unmeasured factors"?

Professor Seitz:

I think that the biggest one to consider is the classic placebo effect. Generally it's thought that basic vision is largely immune to placebo, but the question is what does largely immune mean? Some estimates I've seen say that maybe 10% of improvements on eye charts might be due to the placebo effect.

I'm pretty confident that some of this really is a change of vision but if people are a little bit more confident, and it does seem to make the players more confident, this could also have a measurable effect on how the players are hitting the ball.

This is something I definitely thinks shows real changes. But up until we have larger studies and more people with placebo controls, as a scientist we need to be very careful about what inferences one makes from the research.

It would be really nice to know whether half the changes are due to vision and half the changes are due to extra confidence the players have or if it's 80 percent due to vision or if maybe it's lower.

Another thing is how does vision interact with other things they're doing? For instance, since they're able to see better did seeing better help with certain aspects of training that "then" led to an improvement?

There were a number of players who reported they were able to see the stitching on the ball, but at the same time it's hard to estimate how this is interacting with all the other things that they were doing that lead to better play. Just more study is required.

Question: Has the permanence of the enhanced perception been determined?

Professor Seitz:

In this particular case, we know that the effects last at least for months. The eye tests were done a month or two after the training was completed and the baseball season continued for up to six months after the training was completed.

This suggests that there is a long lasting component. If you look at the basic research studies that this is based upon, those studies have measured out to two years and found effects to be long lasting. Then some of the other ( perceptual learning) approaches people have done also show long lasting effects. If I had to guess, I would say most of it will last for years.

At the same time, I think if someone really wants to achieve best vision, then doing some additional training is probably best. This is because there will be probably some component that falls off, and it will take us more time to measure that because it literally takes years to measure whether things last years. This is also because our eyes are changing. To keep up with the changes with the eyes one needs to continue to do training as well.

Question: Was there a reason to use pitchers and batters rather than two groups of batters in your study?         (Pitchers were the control group, and did not receive brain training).

Professor Seitz:

I definitely agree it would have been better with two groups of batters. In our negotiations with the coach; there was a need to make sure we had something that was both good for our research needs and that also fit their goals for the players. In order to make something happen, one needs to figure out what is a compromise were both people could get their agendas met.

One of the reasons that we didn't have a placebo condition is it's really tough to convince the coach we want a bunch of your players to do a placebo for 25 minutes a day over two months. These are just the realities of trying to do research in the real world. The people that your doing your studies with have their own agendas.

I have been trying to move to some crossover designs were we train half the hitters first; and then the other half later and try and look at some preseason statistics. I'm hoping to come up with approaches where the coaches get to train the full team but we also get the better control conditions. It's still a work in progress.

Question: Did U.C.R. head baseball coach Doug Smith have any other concerns?

Professor Seitz:

Actually he was wonderful. When we first spoke with him he said "If you think you could make even a 1% positive difference to the team then I'm completely behind it".

From that point on he was very supportive. We worked hard to avoid putting him in a situation were he would have concerns. We didn't push him on the placebo and we mentioned that at the very beginning. When he said "well why don't you train the position players", we said "ok."

The nice thing is it developed a good relationship. This year we worked with the baseball team again, we worked with the woman's softball team and we are hoping to get started in the next month or so with the basketball teams.


O.K. Athletics Nation, we are half-way through the interview and this seems like a good place to break. Join us later this week for Part 2. Professor Seitz talks about the 20 / 7.5 vision players, the 4-5 game improvement, how the general public and MLB teams can best utilize his program and much more.