It's pretty amazing to think that strobe lights in a club, the ones that make you kind of dizzy, could actually help our brains process images.
Duke researchers knew that they were on to something. They had done at least one other study on "stroboscopic visual conditions." So, they teamed up with some men whose livelihoods depend on visual acuity, hockey players, to test their theories out.
They designed special glasses with kind of an internal strobe light. The glasses intermittently let vision in, and then cut it off.
Eleven professional athletes participated in the test. Five members of the Carolina Hurricanes practiced normally, 6 wore the special glasses.
They did off-ice work, drills with tennis balls. Forwards did activities that mimicked skating while before taking shots on goal. Defensemen had to skate in a circle wearing the glasses before completing a long pass. Goalie Justin Peters says he used them to keep his eye trained on the puck, in this case, a tennis ball.
He says the light didn't flash in his eyes, he just lost his sight momentarily. Sometimes it would be in one eye, sometimes the other, sometimes in both.
Justin remembers what he first thought when he heard about the project. "It was kind of goofy to be honest with you."
But once researchers explained it, he was on board. He would head to the trainer's area after getting off the ice to work with the glasses. He would conduct drills wearing the frames. When he took them off, he'd do the same drills. He says his teammates noticed the change immediately. "100% we were better. I noticed that big time, like night and day."
As a goalie, focus is key. His drills involved trying to catch a tennis ball, while lunging and doing other movements. The on-and-off sight the glasses create made him really focus on the ball. "It slows it down. When you play a simple game like catch, it can be hard to remember to focus on the ball, to keep your eye on the ball. But the glasses forced you to do that."
Justin Peters liked the glasses so much, he took them home to play with them. "I would goof around at home, I would play ping pong with them. I beat [fellow NHL player] Chad LaRose in ping pong using them," he laughs.
DRAMATIC GAINS IN TESTING
Researchers say that the players who wore the glasses did better on skills tests by 18%. Even the study authors were surprised.
Here's Stephen Mitroff, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience:
That 18-percent improvement for on-ice skills for professional players is huge. This is a dramatic improvement observed in professional athletes.
Motroff went on to say that the strobe eyewear forces the wearer's visual system to train in difficult conditions in much the same way that wearing ankle weights makes training harder for a runner.
More study, and a larger sample size is needed before the 'Canes can say, "look out Google Glass."
The study appears online in the November-December issue of Athletic Training & Sports Health Care.