The incredible vision of a south-east African tribe

Our vision adapts to the world we live in. But natural evolution can only move so fast, and there’s no limit to the speed at which the world can change.

So, when in just a few generations the average person’s day shifts from spending hours out in wide-open spaces, full of natural light, different colours and contrasts, and moving objects at varying distances, to sitting in an office in a city and staring at a computer screen all day, it’s no surprise our eyes are experiencing an abundance of visual issues and conditions.

As we are immersed in it day-to-day, it’s difficult to notice this change. However, by observing traditional societies, in this case, a South-east African tribe known as the Himba, we can get a better idea of just how quickly the world has changed and how our vision is changing too.

The Himba tribe of Namibia are most famous for their striking appearance. Each morning the women apply otjize, a paste of butter, fat, and red ochre, to their skin and hair, giving them a distinctive red hue.

But just as distinctive as their appearance is their way of life—at least to the modern West in 2020. The Himba are one of the few tribes left today who still have limited contact with the outside world, and whose culture and way of life is more or less free from Western influence.

This preservation of ancient ways has allowed researchers and scientists to better understand how modern life may be altering our minds. And one of the most significant results they have found has to do with our vision, and in particular, our focus. The Himba people, it seems, as well as not living like the rest of us, also don’t see or perceive the world like the rest of us.

A society designed for undistractable focus

The Himba tribe are herders who live in small groups of wooden huts. A typical day for a member of the tribe revolves around rearing cattle, goats, and sheep. Like their relatives, the Herero, whose women are known for their headwear that resembles cattle horns, animals are central to their lives, to the point that if there is nowhere for them to graze, the whole village may decide to relocate.

By observing and testing the Himba with a series of experiments over many years, researchers have found that they are able to see fine details and ignore distractions much better than most people.

For instance, in one experiment where members of the tribe were asked to focus on certain objects, they were less easily distracted by the movements of other objects on the screen. In fact, the researchers found they were the most focused of any groups previously studied.

The researchers have several theories as to why the Himba have such exceptional vision. One explanation is the act of cattle rearing. As well as spending the majority of their time outdoors and on various tasks like milking and herding, identifying each cow by their markings is essential for daily life. These daily practices could train the eye with a focus and attention that is lacking in more modern societies.

The other explanation is that modern life itself is essentially designed to make us more easily distracted and to have poor concentration. As one of the researchers pointed out, urban environments are naturally more cluttered and full of objects and stimuli all vying for our attention. Abilities like undistractable focus and attention to detail are not so important as being able to cross the road through busy traffic or to not hit a pedestrian while driving at high speeds.

There’s also the stress of urban life, as opposed to the relative tranquillity of the Himba. The daily hustle and bustle of cities can put you on high alert, priming your nervous and visual system to keep on guard for threats and to take action—to fight or flee—if necessary.

This latter theory supports the idea that other aspects of our lives affect our vision. Psychologist Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan, for instance, researches how vision is influenced by our social lives. He has found that people who live in more interdependent, collectivist societies like China and Japan who focus more on the context of a social situation also tend to have a broader, more contextual visual focus. This means they can take a wider view of a scene, pay more attention to the background of pictures, and are less “analytical” and more “holistic”, in comparison to people who live in more independent societies, who tend to have a narrower and content-orientated view, a less stable focus, and are more analytical and less holistic.

Like the rest of the world, the Himba tribe is changing. Younger generations are encountering the allures of modern societies and are being introduced to tools like bricks and writing and other cultures for the first time. Studying this shift, researchers found that the vision and perception of members of the tribe who have left and joined modern society had also changed for the worse. Interestingly, even very short day trips to a bigger town seemed to have had a lasting impact on their perception.

These findings are hugely significant as they reveal how our vision and our perception are not just things that are hardwired in the brain, but rather that they can be shaped and influenced by our culture and our surroundings.

The abilities of the Himba may change as their lives do. But thankfully such communities are still around today so we can study them and learn more about ourselves, to ultimately find ways to ensure the best possible vision and health for everyone.