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Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey…

Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions (2009)

by Susan R. Barry

Other authors: Oliver Sacks (Foreword)

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The human brain is really coming along. Time was, and it wasn’t so long ago, that scientists figured that if you didn’t learn an essential skill when you were a kid, you weren’t going to learn it at all.

That may still be largely true of language (unless you’ve had the acquisition window propped open by early multi-language learning): unless you get it while young, you’re going to work like a dog to learn to speak another language and likely will never learn it well enough to sound like a native.

The same was long held to be the case with seeing in three dimensions. As Oliver Sacks writes in his introduction to Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions, what Susan Barry experienced “went completely against the current dogma of ‘critical periods’ in sensory development… [Stereoscopy] had to be acquired in the first three or four years of life, or it could never be acquired, for the critical brain cells and circuitry needed for stereovision would fail to develop.”

Lucky for Barry, dogmas are easy to run over with the truck of empirical experience. More or less born cross-eyed and thus lacking in stereovision, Barry spent most of her young life unaware of what she was missing. In college, though, she was sitting in a neurobiology lecture as the professor described the development of the visual system. As he described the inability of kittens with strabismus (misaligned or crossed eyes) to ever see stereoscopically, even after their eyes were straightened, Barry was thunderstruck: that was exactly her situation.

Barry went on to become a respected neuroscientist, her life and career unhampered by the fact that she lacked stereovision. But Barry never gave up hoping that she could somehow regain 3D sight. Eventually she found an optometrist who prescribed an unconventional regimen of vision therapy. And, after intensive training, she one day emerged from a dim Manhattan subway into bright daylight and saw the world in a new way. A stereoscopic way.

The change in vision flabbergasted her, as much for what she hadn’t been seeing for over 40 years as for the death of the dogma that severely constrained her therapeutic options.

The story of Barry’s breakthrough into stereovision occupies the first few pages of Fixing My Gaze. What follows is, in part, a stake being driven through the heart of dogma, as well as a well-written account of the neurobiology of vision. Barry’s book is great for anyone interested in learning more about the fascinating and complex biology of seeing, as well as those seeking hope and inspiration in overcoming a brain-centered disability thought to be incurable. While it’s true that no two patients are the same, Barry’s story underscores the truth that dogma is never a viable prescription.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book. © Brian Charles Clark, 2010 ( )
1 vote funkendub | Oct 4, 2010 |
When Susan Barry was an infant, she developed crossed eyes- strabisimus. When she was seven, she had surgery to correct them. They looked normal then. It wasn’t until she was in college that she realized that she didn’t have stereovision- the ability to see in three dimensions. Of course it was too late by then to do anything about it- the scientific community agreed that the cut off point for restoring stereovision was in infancy. She was way too old to change things; her brain could not be remodeled.

Then, when she was 47, she consulted an optometrist and was referred to Dr. Theresa Ruggiero, a developmental optometrist. There she learned that the doctor had patients as old as ninety. This doctor treated children with vision problems that made school difficult, people with binocular vision problems, and people whose vision had been affected by stroke or brain injury. There, she learned that while her eyes looked straight to other people, they actually didn’t line up quite right- there was several degrees of difference in them. They literally did not see the same things, and Sue’s brain had learned to adapt to that so she didn’t see double. Now her task was to both learn to align them better with eye muscle strength, and retrain her brain in how it translated the signals it got from them.

It worked. After a lot of hard work, one day her vision suddenly popped into 3-D. And it’s worked for a lot of other people, too. As neuroscientists are learning, the adult brain retains plasticity into adulthood and can be trained to make up for deficits, but that information isn’t trickling down to all doctors as fast as it should.

Today the author is a much better driver, can read longer without getting tired, and is a better tennis player. She’s not as clumsy, and revels in how marvelous things look to her now.

The book is a twining story of both her own journey to stereovision and the biological and neurological underpinnings of vision. It’s a very interesting read, a good addition to the growing number of neurology for the layman books. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Aug 12, 2010 |
The world you see may not be the same everyone else sees. Imagine, however, if you could suddenly gain a new perspective on the world you couldn't access before. That, in essence, is the story behind this book. The author was born with a condition called alternating strabismus. As a result, her two eyes never really worked together, and the world didn't have the depth that other people perceive. She had surgery in childhood to align the eyes, but she never saw in 3-D. She never suspected that her view of the world was different until a neurobiology lecture introduced a word for this condition: stereoblind. As she learned more about the condition, suddenly a great many difficulties in her life made sense. Conventional wisdom held that if the condition wasn't fully corrected when very young, in the so-called critical period, that the brain cells needed for 3-D vision would never be able to work correctly. In other words, you just had to learn to make do. But when author Susan Barry got older and the slight misalignment increasingly caused eyestrain and dysfunction, she took a chance and tried vision therapy. To her surprise, her brain was far more plastic than conventional wisdom predicted. Where once her world was flat, a world of far greater dimension appeared, first intermittently and then permanently. Even more strange, it impacted not just how she saw the world, but even her psychological and philosophical experience of being "in" the world. She describes her excitement for her own expanded experience of life and for what such an accomplishment means in the field of neuroscience. She tells the stories of many others who contacted her with their own eye stories when her experiences were publicized in an article (Stereo Sue) by well-known writer Oliver Sacks.

Barry gives some scientific detail about her condition in this book, and there are certainly not many other books out there that describe strabismus for the general audience. There are notes in the back of the book for those who would like to further pursue the science. At its core, though, this is a human interest story, and I was glad she told it. As Barry explains, those with strabismus do not see the same world in the same way as those with binocular vision; even when the normal-sighted have one eye closed, their perception is strongly shaped by their prior binocular experiences. Unlike Barry, I have never seen the world both ways, but as a person with strabismus, I have seen the "flat" world she describes. I have learned to deal, using those depth cues and tricks of movement Barry describes, but there are very real challenges I face in dealing with the world, and I appreciated her giving voice to this experience. While Barry had three surgeries as a child and thus had some measure of alignment in childhood, I had none. Everyone said it was past the critical period and my brain could never adjust, until I found a doctor who would try surgery when I was 34, and some function has improved since then. Although insurance will not cover vision therapy, I am inspired by her story to consider it.

This book fits in well with other popular cognitive science books about neuroplasticity. In fact, I would consider it more accessible than many other books of that genre; this book is short and there is some terminology, but not much. I found myself wanting much more detail, but that wasn't the intent of the book. If you or someone you care for has ever been "cross-eyed," even if the eyes now appear straight, give the book a try. Given that 2-4% of people have strabismus, it's likely you know someone impacted by the condition. Even if you don't, however, the book is worth a quick read for its challenge to the view that childhood irreversibly determines our destinies. Unlike another book about plasticity, Doidge's The Brain that Changes Itself, there is nothing "controversial" as such in this work. At heart, this book isn't an advocacy piece, just a good story. I wouldn't recommend that most people pay the hardback price for this book, but it's certainly worth the read.
  caffron | Jul 25, 2009 |
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Sacks, OliverForewordsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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In memory of my mother, Estelle, Florence Fisher Feinstein, a woman who saw in great depth.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465009131, Hardcover)

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 street 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 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:40 -0400)

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Recounts how the author, after seeing the world in one way for her whole life, suddenly began to see things three dimensionally, examining the factors involved that affected such a change and challenging the notion that the brain is unable to be reprogram itself.… (more)

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