I’m reading The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, and his chapter on stereoscopic vision made me think about my own vision and how I live my life. I have a bad right eye and I have poor stereoscopic vision. When I close one eye I don’t notice any difference. I was told when I was young that my mind compensates with a pseudo-sense of 3D. Dr. Sacks spends quite a bit of time talking about how much he loves his stereoscopic vision, that he’s even a member of New York Stereoscopic Society and has been a lifelong collector of stereoscopic cameras and viewers. When he lost vision in one eye he wrote quite eloquently about what it means to live in a 2D world after being so attuned to 3D reality. He also chronicles a patient that spent most of her life in a 2D world, and acquired 3D vision late in life.
Sacks mentioned several times in chapter 6 that many people have weak stereoscopic vision and have learned to compensate and don’t even know what they are missing. I guess I’m one of them. But then I got to thinking about my visual world. I spend all day working in front of a computer, and all evening either at the computer, TV set, or reading books, and that means I spend a majority of my day looking at 2D fields, either of LCD or paper. I also love paintings, cover art on books, CDs, LPs, magazines, and photography. I also have a tablet computer and iPod touch – more 2D living.
I wonder if my lack of 3D vision pushed me into enjoying 2D hobbies and jobs? I love hi-rez computer screens. I’m happiest when I’m immersed in one of my 2D worlds. But I’m not alone. Is all our gadgets and screens pushing us all into preferring a 2D world? If I had been born with great vision would I have become a bookworm and computer geek? From reading The Mind’s Eye we are warned very vividly to expect a lot of changes and adapting to failing bodies and brains when we get old. All his case histories are about people adapting, so I assume I adapted before I even knew I was missing anything.
I can’t recommend The Mind’s Eye highly enough. It’s fucking intense. It’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. Most people will find this book immensely depressing and horrifying. Zombies and vampires are kittens and puppies compared to what awaits us in old age. It scares me and inspires me at the same time. It’s about people with various kinds of brain damage, usually from dementia, stroke, aging, birth defects, etc., and how they coped when their way of life was greatly disturbed when one day one of their abilities were taken away.
What’s funny is most of the people that Sacks writes about deal with their disability with great bravery, but Sacks tells us how frightening and depressed he got when he chronicles losing vision in his right eye. But even with all his physical failings, this 79-year-old man does more each day in old age than I ever did on any day in my prime.
That’s why this book is so inspiring. We’re all going to die, and more than likely, we’re all going to see our bodies and minds deteriorate before we get to take that long dirt nap. It’s going to be painful, scary, depressing and hard. But Sacks tells us stories about how people go through horrible conditions. If I have a stroke in my future, then I’ve very glad I read this book. I once had a stroke like incidence and the details in this book explained what happened to me. For a short time I lost all language awareness.
We are used to thinking that aging means failure of our physical health. But our brains wear down too, and in many ways. Sacks profiles people who have lost the ability to read or recognize faces or objects, things when we read about them sound bizarre. But if you’ve ever known people who have had a stroke, or dementia, you’ll recognize all of these horrifying failures of brain functionality.
We like to think of ourselves as little souls inside a body. That if we lose a leg or have a heart attack it’s something that’s happening to our body. We seldom contemplate what happens when our soul comes apart? If you woke up one day and couldn’t tell the difference between your wife, mother and daughter, how are you going to react? Quite a few of these stories are about people who have healthy eyes but can no longer process vision in a normal way. Sacks explores many subprograms that make up our visual processing of reality.
If you read The Mind’s Eye you’ll see how everyone adapts their limited senses to reality. No one is 100% functioning in all brain processing. Reading this book makes me realize how I’ve adapted to living in a 2D reality. My brain has adapted my vision so I can drive, walk down stairs, wash the dishes, play ball, catch a Frisbee, but from what I’ve read I’ve never known the beauty of stereoscopic vision as Dr. Sacks describes it. When Sacks lost his 3D vision, he had trouble walking down stairs, taking ahold of objects, and did things like pour wine into people’s laps.
I hope I can remember this book, because when I experience brain damage or mental malfunction, I want to stay calm and not freak out. When my brain starts breaking down and my consciousness observes the world going wacky, I want to go, “Hey, I know what this is, the area of my brain that processes written words must have conked out.” Several people in this book described seeing words as if everything was written in a different language and alphabet. Can you imagine how scary that would be? Hopefully understanding the ideas in The Mind’s Eye might help deal with such experiences – if I can remember.
The thing I fear the most is not remembering who I am. But you know what? People adapt to that too.
JWH – 8/8/12