About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, June 28, 2010

#49 - Fixing My Gaze

Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions, by Susan R. Barry (New York: Basic Books, 2009).

Jacket summary: "When neuroscientist Susan Barry was fifty years old, she took an unforgettable trip to Manhattan. As she emerged from the dim light of the subway into the sunshine, she saw a view of the city that she had witnessed many times in the past but now saw in an astonishingly new way. Skyscrapers on corners appeared to loom out toward her like the bows of giant ships. Tree branches projected upward and outward, enclosing and commanding palpable volumes of space. Leaves created intricate mosaics in 3D. With each glance, she experienced the deliriously novel sense of immersion in a three dimensional world.

"Barry had been cross-eyed and stereoblind since early infancy. After half a century of perceiving her surroundings as flat and compressed, on that day she was seeing Manhattan in stereo depth for the first time in her life. As a neuroscientist, she understood just how extraordinary this transformation was, not only for herself but for the scientific understanding of the human brain. Scientists have long believed that the brain is malleable only during a 'critical period' in early childhood. According to this theory, Barry's brain had organized itself when she was a baby to avoid double vision -- and there was no way to rewire it as an adult. But Barry found an optometrist who prescribed a little-known program of vision therapy; after intensive training, Barry was ultimately able to accomplish what other scientists and even she herself had once considered impossible.

"A revelatory account of the brain's capacity for change, Fixing My Gaze describes Barry's remarkable journey and celebrates the joyous pleasure of our senses."

Table of Contents:
  1. Stereoblind
  2. Mixed-Up Beginnings
  3. School Crossings
  4. Knowing Where to Look
  5. Fixing My Gaze
  6. The Space Between
  7. When Two Eyes See as One
  8. Nature and Nurture
  9. Vision and Revision
My take: Clearly written and interesting, but I suppose I'm greedy; I wanted more of Barry's research and observations, especially when it came to the last 2 chapters.

If you know me IRL, you probably know I don't have binocular vision. Never have, and while that's been vaguely annoying on occasion (I never can see the pictures in those Magic Eye books that were all the rage a few years back, and 3D movies are lost on me), I've mostly not missed it. Until now, that is. One of the book's strong points is the eloquence with which Barry describes the profound joy and wonder of learning to see in stereo as an adult. I won't do it, but I'll admit that some of these passages had me musing about whether there are any behavioral optometrists in my area and whether insurance would cover such a thing.

Barry's early overview of the structure and function of the human eye is succinct and readable; if you've had high school biology, you shouldn't find it overly technical or confusing. She then goes on to describe her own experiences growing up essentially cross-eyed (OK, technically, strabismic, which is a word you'll see a lot in this book), lacking stereo vision despite (or perhaps because of?) several corrective surgeries in early childhood. Some of her early school experiences were pretty horrific (being placed in the "problem kids" class because school administrators assumed, despite her parents' and former teacher's protests, poor test performance (due to her visual difficulties) must mean low ability. While it's remarkable that she went on to become a neuroscientist and college professor with these early experiences, and she may be trying to make a point about the dangers of overreliance on testing and/or the importance of addressing "minor" vision impairments early on, I did find the childhood-and-schooling section of the book a bit slow. Yes, it's Barry's memoir, and she can talk as much about her own life as she wants ... but this is a relatively short book, and I'd much rather have seen her devote more time to the last chapter, which touches all too briefly on what her experience and that of other late-in-life stereo viewers means for theories of neural plasticity and critical developmental periods.

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