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The First Steps in Seeing

R. W. Rodieck

Publication Date - January 1998

ISBN: 9780878937578

562 pages
9 x 11.5 inches

An innovative, authoritative work about how the eyes capture an image and convert it to the neural messages that ultimately result in visual experience


The First Steps in Seeing is about the eyes, and how they capture an image and convert it to the neural messages that ultimately result in visual experience.

A full appreciation of how the eyes work is rooted in diverse areas of science--optics; biochemistry and photochemistry; molecular biology, cell biology, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology; psychology and psychophysics.

The findings related to vision from any one of these fields are not difficult to understand in themselves, but, in order to be clear and precise, each discipline has developed its own set of words and conceptual relations--in effect, its own language--and for those wanting a broad introduction to vision these separate languages can present more of an impediment to understanding than an aid. However, what lies beneath these words usually has a beautiful simplicity, and it is the aim of The First Steps in Seeing to describe how we see in a manner that is understandable to all.

In this book, the use of technical terms is restricted, and several hundred full-color illustrations ensure that the terms that are used are associated with a picture, icon, or graph that visually expresses their meaning. Experimental findings have been recast in terms of the natural world whenever possible, and broad themes bring together lines of thought that are often treated separately.

Fourteen main chapters form a "thread" that tells the main scientific story and can be read without specialized knowedge or reliance on other sources. This thread is linked to fourteen discussions which explore certain crucial topics in greater depth. Notes link the material presented in the thread and in the special topics discussions to important review articles and seminal research papers.

The First Steps in Seeing is an innovative, authoritative work that belongs in the library of anyone with an interest in visual perception.

About the Author(s)

Robert W. Rodieck, at the time of his death in 2003, was Bishop Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology at the University of Washington.


"The First Steps in Seeing synthesizes our understanding of the eye and retina in a way that is at once enjoyable to read, clearly presented and gorgeously illustrated. Complex subjects, ranging from biochemical pathways to the mathematical underpinnings of the relevant optics, chemistry and photometry, are elegantly explained. The author has indeed given us all some new ways to think about the 'first steps in seeing.'" --Helga Kolb, Nature Neuroscience

"Rodieck's enthusiasm for the retina is clear from the beautiful illustrations. Nevertheless he tackles all the physical and chemical problems involved in the early stages of vision with clarity and verve. The result is a fine exposition of all one needs to know about the way the retina deals with light, a lucid and unique work of reference for students at all levels." --Michael F. Land, The Times Higher Education Supplement

"With little doubt, The First Steps in Seeing is a beautiful multidisciplinary tour through our current understanding of the visual system. The combination of an easy-to-read narrative and supplementary scientific detail makes this book an excellent resource for both medical students and professionals in the visual sciences and clinical ophthalmic care." --Robert W. Nickells, Archives of Ophthalmology

Table of Contents

    Prologue: The watch
    Vision is a precious gift-but what is it for?

    1. The chase
    An encounter between a cheetah and a gazelle introduces the visual system as an integrated machine.

    2. Eyes
    The basic structure of our eyes is described, and compared with those of other animals.

    3. Retinas
    The general plan of the retina is described and the different cell classes that compose it are introduced.

    Starting with the eye, a series of magnified views steps down until the electrons thatcatch the light are reached.

    4. The rain of photons onto cones
    Gazing at a star is used to illustrate the formation of the retinal image and the capture of photons by the array of cones.

    The elements of how neurons work are introduced in order to provide common ground for subsequent discussions of the functions of retinal neurons.

    5. A cone pathway
    The image of the star, captured by the array of cones, is conveyed to the brain.

    6. The rain of photons onto rods
    A pathway from rods joins the pathways for cones before leaving the retina.

    7. Night and day
    A photoreceptor can respond to only a limited range of light intensities, yet our photoreceptors allow us to see over an intensity range of about forty billion.

    Graphical techniques are described that allow measures of light intensity to be converted to the rate of photon capture by single photoreceptors.

    8. How photoreceptors work
    The capture of a single photon by a rod provides the basis for a description of photoreceptor function.

    The primary structure of the molecules that catch the light is similar in all animals.

    9. Retinal organization
    The retina is layered, with different cell types disposed so as to allow their interconnections.

    10. Photoreceptor attributes
    Photoreceptors are specialized neurons with a variety of interesting properties.

    11. Cell types
    Some of the many different cell types in the retina are discussed in detail.

    12. Informing the brain
    Messages from each eye pass to six different regions on each side of the brain.

    13. Looking
    The retinal image of the external world is stabilized by a variety of factors, including messages sent by the retina to different brain centers.

    14. Seeing
    What we see and how we see it depends upon different types of messages that pass from the eyes to the visual cortex of the brain.

    Epilogue: Ignorance
    An appreciation of what we don't know about vision provides a healthy perspective on what we do know.

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