Sunday, May 30, 2021

Seeing Depth for the First Time

Neurobiologist Susan R. Barry was an adult when she acquired depth perception for the first time.

"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 saw the city of 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."

The story shows not only that the brain is malleable, but also that a conscious awareness of experience isn't the same as actually having that experience. As author Bruce Goldstein puts it, "Scientific knowledge is not enough." 

Susan Barry tells her story in her book Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions

6 comments:

Forrest said...

That's truly remarkable.

Michaelangelo Reina said...

I'm here for Metallica Pinball. lol.

Roberto Quintana said...

Fascinating story.
I look forward to reading Ms. Barry’s book. This subject hits very close to home for me. I was a premi in the 50’s, when they were still administering 100% oxygen to premature infants, in order to save their/our lives… and oxidizing our undeveloped optic nerves and retinas in the process. Most of the children went completely blind, but I was lucky in that only one of my retinas was massively damaged, pretty much taking out most of my fovea, leaving only limited peripheral vision in that eye. The resulting weak and fragmented visual message to my developing brain was ignored as the stronger message from my relatively stronger eye was developed. The unused eye soon atrophied, leaving me with a ’lazy’ crossed-eye, which was later surgically repaired. While my stereo-blindness was not debilitating by any means, it did contribute to my always being chosen last at most sports involving a ball.
When I started painting I think it was actually easier for me to transpose the ‘3D’ world ‘out there’ onto a 2-dimensional surface, and I was already used to ‘looking hard’ at what I was seeing. Learning all the little tricks of perspective: overlapping, scale, sfumoto, line-quality, etc., is mostly a logical application of technique to create the desired illusion.
It’s really important to have good source material and accurate images to work from, but I think the most important thing is to have a complete ‘inner-vision’ of the final product/scene, so that when you do happen to achieve your desired effect you can recognize it and put your brushes down. -Roberto Quintana

S. Stipick said...

This happened to me as well. I have written about a similar experience, not here but on other social media platforms. Back in 2015 at the age of 37, due to a neuropathy I have, the doctors at Wills Eye concluded that my brain had been turning off one eye since I was a child and I grew up with monocular vision not knowing any different. As I got older, my brain "was fatigued" and I started seeing double. The neurologist at Wills Eye that first diagnosed me recommended a doctor a couple of floors down that could potentially fix the problem. The doctor to perform the surgery that could fix the problem was a children's eye doctor, which made for awkward visits but that did not diminish the experience one bit. During the first visit, he sat me down, spoke to me, and proceeded to put prisms into a device that I looked through. I asked him what I was looking for and he just said to me " you will know it when you see it." I suspect he had that line well-rehearsed for such occasions. Anyways, after several tries, the world converged (the prisms make you see multiples) and abruptly expanded. The room was regular and in an instant, it wasn't!It was more! It was DEEP, which is probably the best way to describe it. I was given a choice, glasses which the doctor said I most likely wouldn't wear, or surgery on one of my eyes. I chose the surgery. When I woke up and after the bandages were removed after a couple of days, there wasn't really any difference. The doctor warned me of this, yet I was still a bit disappointed. The world was back to normal, or normal for me. About 2 days later, I started to develop depth perception. I remember it well, a stop sign on a local crossroads at a traffic light, it stood out, pushed into the foreground in a way that the other objects were not. I was at a stop light and was quickly awakened when a person behind me honked their horn. After a few more days the world slowly began to expand and today, it's but a distant memory. Which is sort of sad because the world looked new back then, it was interesting and a fun experience. Now, it's just one more thing I take for granted, another story. At least I can share it and remind myself that I was lucky enough to see the world in a whole different way when I was old enough to appreciate it.

S. Stipick said...

Robeto, I share your schoolyard pain as I too was terrible at sports involving fast-moving objects and so I too was frequently last to be picked. Luckily, there was grappling...

James Gurney said...

Hi, Roberto and S. Stipick, Thanks for sharing those personal stories, which count extra because of your ability to verbalize the visual experience.

The way you describe how the wonderful revelation eventually wore off or faded away reminds me of an account an artist friend gave me after receiving cataract surgery. After the yellowish obstruction was removed, all the sudden, he said, he could see deep blues and purples that he forgot were part of his experience. The wonder of it didn't last forever, though.