Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions [NOOK Book]


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 ...

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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Barry, a neuroscientist at Mount Holyoke College, was born with her eyes crossed and literally couldn't see in all three dimensions. Barry underwent several surgeries as a child, but it wasn't until she was in college that she realized she wasn't seeing in 3-D. The medical profession has believed that the visual center of the brain can't rewire itself after a critical cutoff point in a child's development, but in her 40s, with the help of optometric vision therapy, Barry showed that previously neglected neurons could be nudged back into action. The author tells a poignant story of her gradual discovery of the shapes in flowers in a vase, snowflakes falling, even the folds in coats hanging on a peg. After Barry's story was written up in the New Yorker by Oliver Sacks, she heard from many others who had successfully learned to correct their vision as adults, challenging accepted wisdom about the plasticity of the brain. Recommended for all readers who cheer stories with a triumph over seemingly insuperable odds. Photos, illus. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher

From the foreword by Oliver Sacks

Fixing My Gaze is a beautiful description and appreciation of two very distinct ways of seeing… But it is also an exploration of much more. Sue is at pains not only to present her story, in clear and lucid, often poetic, language, but also, as a scientist, to provide understanding and explanation. She is in a unique position to do this, drawing on both her personal experience and her background as a neurobiologist….

Though Sue originally thought her own case unique, she has since found a number of other people with strabismus and related problems who have unexpectedly achieved stereo vision through vision therapy. This is no easy accomplishment. It may require not only optical corrections (proper lenses or prisms, for example), but very intensive training and learning—in effect, learning how to align the eyes and to fuse their images, and unlearning the unconscious habit of suppressing vision which has been occurring perhaps for decades. In this way, vision therapy is directed at the whole person: it requires high motivation and self-awareness, and enormous perseverance, practice and determination, as does psychotherapy, for instance, or learning to play the piano. But it is also highly rewarding, as Sue brings out. And this ability to acquire new perceptual abilities later in life has great implications for anyone interested in neuroscience or rehabilitation, and, of course, for the millions of people who, like Sue, have been strabismic since infancy.

Sue's case, and many others, suggest that if there are even small islands of function in the visual cortex, there may be a fair chance of reactivating and expanding them in later life, even after a lapse of decades, if vision can be made optically possible. Cases like these may offer new hope for those once considered incorrigibly stereo-blind. Fixing My Gaze will offer inspiration for anyone in this situation, but it is equally a very remarkable exploration of the brain's ability to change and adapt, and an ode to the fascination and wonder of the visual world, even those parts of it which many of us take for granted.”

Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures
“Essential reading for people interested in the brain.”

Eric Kandel, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine; author of In Search of Memory
Fixing My Gaze is a magical book, at once poetic and scientific, that holds out great hope for all of us. Here Susan Barry recounts her discovery that through training she could acquire, in adulthood, the three dimensional vision she lacked in all her early years. Barry, an excellent brain scientist, illustrates through her personal experiences and the fascinating science of vision that the brain is a marvelously plastic organ that can continue to change its wiring and thereby its function throughout our adult life.”

David H. Hubel, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine; John Franklin Enders Professor of Neurobiology, Emeritus, Harvard Medical School
“It had been widely thought that an adult, cross-eyed since infancy, could never acquire stereovision, but to everyone’s surprise Barry succeeded. In Fixing My Gaze, she describes how wonderful it was to have, step-by-step, this new 3-D world revealed to her. And as a neurobiologist she is able to discuss the science as an expert, in simple language."

Brock and Fernette Eide, authors of The Mislabeled Child
“Beautifully written, deeply informative, and profoundly inspiring…Fixing My Gaze will appeal to anyone interested in the beauty of the nervous system, and should be required reading for every person involved with the education, behavior, and development of children.”

Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human
“Fascinating and moving....Barry shows us that with healthy eyes and the simplest of tools, we can see the world in an entirely new way. Fixing My Gaze made me wonder: What new things could any of us see, if only someone told us it was possible?”

Dr. Leonard J. Press, Optometric Director, The Vision & Learning Center
“Barry’s story is seemingly about stereovision, but the depth she probes goes well beyond three dimensions. No one reading her fascinating account will ever look at vision the same way again.”

Richard L. Gregory, editor of The Oxford Companion to the Mind
“It is rare to gain stereoscopic vision if born without it, but Susan Barry reveals that it happened to her. Fixing My Gaze is the engaging story of her unusual adventure.”

Nigel Daw, Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology and Neuroscience, Yale University; author of Visual Development
“Magnificent...It is not yet clear what percentage of patients may be like Barry, but Fixing My Gaze will encourage eye care practitioners to go ahead and find out, with definite benefits to their patients. Moreover, the book is fascinating reading.”

Publishers Weekly
“Barry tells a poignant story of her gradual discovery of the shapes in flowers in a vase, snowflakes falling, even the folds in coats hanging on a peg…. Recommended for all readers who cheer stories with a triumph over seemingly insuperable odds.”

Discover magazine
“Barry’s buoyant journey into stereovision is an eye-popping ride.”

“An exemplary and informative testimony to the probably lifelong plasticity of the brain.”
“Barry’s transformation captures the sometimes-indescribable nature of perception…. Her tour of the science behind her experience underlines the amazing precision of our senses – and how easily we can take them for granted.”

“A testament both to human physiology and spirit that permits someone to live with – and then change – a uniquely altered view of the world…. This book opens up the possibility that people can change their physical limitations, and that it is never too late to try.”

Optometry & Vision Development
“This book is a marvelous ode to what can be accomplished when doctor and patient encourage one another to aim higher and further.”

New England Journal of Medicine
“One axis of [Barry’s] book is a graceful and grateful appreciation of a newly acquired ‘ability to see the volume of space between objects and to see each object as occupying its own space’ – revelations that allowed her to live ‘among’ and ‘in’ the things of this world and gave her first movements of snow falling, trees branching, and a faucet arcing out of the sink…. The book’s main contribution, however, is exposing the wrong-headed dogma that acuity and binocular vision can be restored only during a critical developmental period.”

Times Higher Education Supplement
“The book is a joy to read.”

Optometry and Vision Science
Fixing My Gaze provides a fascinating, informative, and beautifully written account of [Barry’s] acquisition of stereopsis after vision therapy at the age of 48 years…. Barry’s insights about her own vision provide wonderful insights into what it means to not have stereopsis, and the profound, life-changing effect of acquiring it.”

Stereo World
“In Fixing My Gaze, neuroscientist Susan Barry explains for the rest of us in fascinating detail just what a truly and completely ‘flat’ world is like to live in for 48 years.”

Nature Neuroscience
“[E]nticing…. [Barry] combine[s] a vivid and poetic account of her recovery with a detailed description of her treatment and the underlying science.”

The Journal of Clinical Investigations
“[A] fascinating account…. In addition to recounting her personal triumph, Barry clearly explains the visual and clinical science needed to understand the significance of this achievement…. [T]his engaging book will leave both readers knowledgeable in the field, as well as those just looking to understand something about the visual process, pondering what else there is left to see.”

Curled Up With A Good Book
“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.”

“[C]ombines in an elegant way biography and science…. This is an excellent book.”

The Barnes & Noble Review
A neurologist friend of mine recently told me the following tale. A retired professor came to his office and said, "I think I have had a stroke." My friend asked what his grounds were for saying so, and the professor replied, "I have begun to see phantom figures repeatedly rising out of the floor to my left. Something must have happened in the occipital lobe of my brain on the right side." Sure enough, a scan revealed a small blood clot in the very region of the brain that processes left visual field information.

The professor's phantoms vanished after a couple of weeks as the clot dissipated. It is interesting to speculate what, in an earlier age, such visions might have prompted: what cathedrals, what wars, what reports from beyond. But to a mind prepared and informed, the upwardly floating spirits immediately implied something much more sensible, not to say more interesting.

A prepared and informed mind, plus a wealth of relevant experience, is what Susan Barry brings to thinking about the fascinating matter of vision. Her account turns on personal experience; she was cross-eyed as a child, and although she had corrective surgery it came too late for her to develop stereoscopic vision.

"Stereoblindness," the lack of ability to see the world in 3D, is the standard accompaniment of strabismus, the condition of having eyes that do not co-operate in focusing so that the images of objects in the world fall in the same place on each retina. It used to be thought that if stereopsis did not develop in childhood it would never develop. Barry, a neurobiologist and professor who lectures on the neurology of vision, discovered otherwise. And in the process she discovered much else.

Barry's chief discovery was what the world looks like with stereoscopic vision, because against all received wisdom on the matter, and against all expectation, she gained it after optometric therapy based on the work of Frederick W. Brock. Her experience of gaining stereopsis is vividly described.

She sought the help of an optometrist because, as often happens with people who have been cross-eyed in childhood, she had begun in middle age to have other eye alignment problems. After one of many sessions with her optometrist she got into her car and, as she put the key in the ignition, glanced at the steering wheel: and had a sudden epiphanic experience. "It was an ordinary steering wheel against an ordinary dashboard, but it took on a whole new dimension that day. The steering wheel was floating in its own space, with a palpable volume of empty space between the wheel and the dashboard. Curious and excited, I closed one eye and the position of the steering wheel looked 'normal' again; that is, it lay flat just in front of the dashboard. I reopened the closed eye, and the steering wheel floated before me again."

It took longer for Barry's vision to become fully stereoscopic; many more eye exercises, much dedication, and yet more discoveries about the wonders of the world seen stereoscopically. Barry's descriptions of walking through falling snow, or standing in a wood and marveling at the depth of space between the trees, are striking: if we have normal sight we so comprehensively forget the familiar that when we hear someone like Barry, newly emerged from a Plato's Cave of stereoblindness, hymning the way things stand in space, it is as if we see them in space for the first time too.

But Barry learned much more than how to see in stereoscope. She learned that even small misalignments of eyes which, conventionally tested, seem normal, can interfere severely with a child's education; she cites cases of children whose experience of school was transformed by correct diagnosis of vision problems. She learned that people compensate for the various deficits that accompany stereoblindness by utilizing other capacities, such a bodily movement and touch. She discovered, for example, that she could find her way around in the dark much better than other people, because she registered distances and the disposition of objects by subconsciously making a map of them in the form of her bodily movements among them.

Most important of all, her experience constitutes additional evidence of the plasticity of the brain throughout life. Received wisdom says that the relevant visual pathways are fixed by age eight; she was nearly fifty when she became able to see stereoscopically. This is a remarkable and optimistic fact.

As a result of her own experience Barry began to seek out others who had likewise gained stereopsis in adulthood, and found a number of them, with whom she pooled data. In every case the experience of gaining depth vision was explained in the same amazed terms. One correspondent said that instead of feeling as if she was observing a flat world from a distance, "It feels like I am in the world. Empty space looks and feels palpable, tangible ? alive!" Barry agrees: the experience is one of a "powerful sense of whole sense of space had changed."

Along the thread of the narrative of how she gained stereopsis Barry strings a lucid account of the eyes and their functioning, what strabismus and stereoblindness is, how normal stereoscopic vision works, and how therapeutic optometry can correct or alleviate problems of vision. She is an excellent guide not only to these topics, but to the unexpected further difficulties that vision problems cause. Normally sighted people are apt to think that the only vision problem worth mentioning is blindness. In fact there are many forms of visual deficit, even with people who -- like Barry herself -- have perfect 20/20 vision in each eye separately when conventionally tested. Problems arise when the alignment of the eyes is not right; to recur to the all-important point about children with undetected eye problems, even the subtlest misalignment can manifest as lack of attention at school, difficulties with perceiving numbers or letters, withdrawal and moodiness, clumsiness at ball games, general under- performance -- all of these symptoms feed upon and exacerbate each other, and anxious parents often never discover that their child's problems can be corrected with vision treatment. This is something eminently worth knowing.

It is hard to imagine the dramatic nature of the sudden epiphany that stereoblind people have if they gain stereopsis, as when Barry saw the steering wheel floating before her. Stereoblind people perceive the world in two dimensions, as a flat display; they judge distance and depth by such cues as size, shading, and the partial obscuring of one object by another. They have to develop these techniques in childhood because they suppress the information coming from one of their eyes, since the data from both eyes fail to match. Nothing in the experience of the stereoblind, Barry tells us, can prepare them for what stereoscopic vision is like. If they get it, the experience can be overwhelming; it can even cause vertigo, as happened to Barry, and sensations of travel-sickness.

Indeed it alters things more dramatically still. "Most surprising to me was that the change in my vision affected the way that I thought," Barry writes. "I had always seen and reasoned in a step-by-step manner...My son and daughter, when young, could grasp details and the big picture at the same time. I didn't know how to do this until midlife."

This book could change other people's lives likewise. It will surely persuade people with eye alignment problems to seek optometric therapy. It will surely alert some parents of underperforming or difficult children to a possible source of their problems. With the added evidence it offers of the brain's perennial plasticity, this book will encourage us all because it suggests that if people can reconstruct pathways of vision, there are other things they might succeed in doing. It is a pleasant and optimistic thought indeed, that at any point in life we might, if determined enough, be able to fix things, improve, mend, and grow in positive ways: even to see more clearly, and not just with our eyes. --A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786744749
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 414,468
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Susan R. Barry is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College. She speaks regularly to scientists, eye doctors, and educators on the topic of neuronal plasticity. She has been featured on NPR and in a New Yorker article by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks entitled “Stereo Sue.” She and her husband have two grown children and live in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
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Table of Contents

Note to the Reader ix

Foreword Oliver Sacks xi

1 Stereoblind 1

2 Mixed-Up Beginnings 17

3 School Crossings 35

4 Knowing Where to Look 47

5 Fixing My Gaze 69

6 The Space Between 89

7 When Two Eyes See as One 105

8 Nature and Nurture 133

9 Vision and Revision 155

Acknowledgments 167

Glossary 171

Resources 175

Notes 179

Index 237

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Fixing My Gaze is a welcome addition to the genre of personalized applied science. Susan R. Barry is a Ph.D. determined to find answers to questions about her vision, and this book is a celebration of her discoveries sure to inspire others.

    This book is a tour de force for patients unwilling to accept being patronized about their visual problems. The foreword by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and celebrated author of patient vignettes who conferred the moniker of "Stereo Sue" on Sue Barry, sets the tone for a magnificent work that will open eyes about the eyecare field.

    Susan R. Barry is a Ph.D. who teaches neurobiology at Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts and familiarizes herself with work on critical periods of visual development. She finds it puzzling that despite having cosmetically straight eyes after a series of eye muscle surgeries in childhood, good visual function beyond eyesight never came easily to her. Although having 20/20 visual acuity and being told by ophthalmologists that she had "perfect vision", Sue suspects that her struggles with reading as a child had something to do with her vision being less than optimal.

    In nine delightful chapters, Sue lays out a chronology of her personal visual development complemented by references and footnotes to research supporting her insights. On the surface, the book is about how a scientist was able to achieve stereoscopic depth perception by undertaking vision therapy at age 48,an age at which the window on visual plasticity was thought to be closed. The author devotes considerable space to the significance of stereoscopic vision as an important quale, comparable to color vision and other features that those of us with normal vision take for granted.

    While this book is a unique contribution for this aspect of neuroplasticity alone, Sue's journey goes well beyond three dimensions. After seeing ophthalmologists for many years, having little awareness of the field of developmental Optometry despite being a scientist, Sue finally gave up on expecting surgeons to tell her anything other than her vision was fine. As the reader learns, the discovery that she was not misguidedly obsessive about her visual problems brought the ambivalence of feeling vindicated, yet at the same time bitter about years of missed opportunity.

    The author is determined not to have others struggle the same way she did as a child. The chapters are compelling, and the reader is likely to come away with empathy for Sue's parents, who did everything parents can be expected to do according to the guidance they were given. The clarity of the author's convictions are unmistaken. Having discovered the impact that optometric vision therapy has had on the quality of her life, she guides parents and the public on critical differences about clinicians in the eyecare field.

    Sue shares with readers the experiences of many patients who contacted her after her story became popularized through the "Stereo Sue" pieces in The New Yorker magazine, and on NPR (National Public Radio). Many of them had similar odysseys, of being told that they were too old to change the way their eyes functioned, or of being resigned that their vision was as good as could be expected. Fixing My Gaze includes exchanges with a host of professionals, most notably with Nobel Prize winning physician David Hubel who, along with Torsten Wiesel, conducted research that is credited for shaping concepts about critical periods of vision development. Sue's journey puts a spotlight on the limitations of dogma, and paves the way for broader understanding. Her scientific cachet and reasoned approach makes Susan Barry's work compelling and inspiring.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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