Fixing My Gaze
Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College. She had been cross-eyed and stereoblind since early infancy but learned to see in three dimensions at age forty-eight by retraining her visual system with optometric vision therapy. Her story was first described by Oliver Sacks in his New Yorker article, Stereo Sue, and then greatly expanded by Sue in her book, Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions. Sue's book challenges the conventional wisdom that the brain is permanently wired for basic perceptual skills during a "critical period" in early childhood and offers instead a revelatory account of the brain's capacity for change.
Susan Barry: My first 3D experience happened after a vision therapy session in my developmental optometrist’s office. When I went out to my car and I sat down in the driver’s seat and I looked at the steering wheel to drive away, and the steering wheel was floating in front of the dashboard with this palpable volume of space between the steering wheel and the dashboard. And I had never seen anything like that before. And I thought, “Is this stereovision?”
And then I thought, “No way.” The day happened to be the day after my 48th birthday. So I knew I was more than 40 years past the critical period -- that window of opportunity when one can develop stereovision. And I thought to myself, “It must be the sun coming . . . the sun rays coming into the car at an odd angle” -- because it was right around sunset – “that’s giving me this strange illusion.” And I closed one eye and the steering wheel looked normal again. That is, I knew it was in front of the dashboard because the steering wheel itself blocks a little bit of my view of the dashboard. But it didn’t look like it was in front of the dashboard with this pocket of space between it and the dashboard. And then I opened the two eyes again, and there was the steering wheel floating before me. And I thought, “This is just some crazy illusion. Just concentrate on driving and get home.”
And so the next day I got up and I did my vision therapy exercises, and I got into the car and I went to adjust the rearview mirror. And when I did that, it was floating in front of the windshield. I thought, “Whoa, again! What’s going on?” And everything began to transform -- not just that day, but over the next number of months. So, for example, a sink faucet would just seem to be sticking out toward me like this. And I can remember going into the bathroom at Mt Holyoake College, where I work as a professor. And there was a student in there and I said to her, “Look at that sink faucet.” And she kind of looked at me like I was nuts. And I said, “The arc of that sink faucet’s like the most beautiful arc I’ve ever seen” because I could see it emerging through these layers of space in 3D. And of course, the student didn’t know what to think of all this, and she just turned tail and kind of ran right out of the bathroom.
So it was experiences like that that was so novel, so surprising, that made me think perhaps this really is stereovision. But you know, it took me months to really accept that that was the way I was seeing because of all of the scientific dogma that indicated that this was not possible.
So some of the things we know now about the malleability of the brain in general are this: that if you do functional MRI or other brain imaging studies on people and you give them a task to learn, you can see that areas of their brain change -- the way the brain is activated changes --, that we have maps in our brain, for example, of our own bodies and these maps are distorted in the sense that parts of your body for which you need to have extra good sensory perception, let’s say your fingers versus your thigh, the maps of the body for those places where you want to have extra good sensory perception are larger. More neurons are devoted to those areas than other parts of your body. And those maps can change depending on how you use your hands versus your legs, and so on. So we now have evidence that the human brain can change and can change relatively rapidly, within days, maybe even hours. Okay?
A second piece of evidence that we have now is molecular and cellular evidence showing what happens to neurons in the brain and to the connections or synapses between those neurons. And we now have an understanding of what some of those changes may be. In order to change the way the brain works, you have to change the strength of those synapses. And now we have some ideas of what those mechanisms may be.
In my case in particular, I think one of the things that held back the realization that somebody with my condition, crossed eyes, or related conditions, wall eyes, lazy eye, also called amblyopia . . . one of the things that kind of held back an understanding of this, that a person could improve their vision in these ways, had to do with the fact that the patient, the patient with the visual problem, was always sort of relegated to a passive role. So, for example, in my case, I had strabismus, I didn’t use my eyes in a normal way. I didn’t look straight with the two eyes so surgeries were done to make my eyes look straighter, but I could never have learned to see in 3D unless I actually did the straightening of my eyes.
So I was the one who had to learn how to turn the two eyes in together at the same time to fixate that close object and how to turn the two eyes out at the same time to, let’s say, fixate on objects in the distance, like your face. I was the one who had to learn how to make those movements. And it was only after I learned how to make those movements that I was able to see in 3D. So, a change in my action had to precede a change in my perception.
And I think we are realizing that more and more, that action and perception are just very, very intimately linked. You can’t really separate one from the other. And for changes in the brain, often what has to happen are this sort of constant dialogue between changing action, changing perception, changing action and so on.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
Neuroscientist Susan Barry describes the first time she saw in three dimensions.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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