Fixing My Gaze: a scientist’s journey into seeing in three dimensions (find it at a library | buy it from Amazon.com), is an autobiographical account by Susan Barry about her experiences growing up and living most of her life stereoblind, and then later in life regaining her stereovision through vision therapy. While that may sound a bit dry, Barry provides a fascinating look in to how the brain works and how it is that we see, along with the interesting story of how she learned to see in three dimensions.
Barry had infantile strabismus (strabismus that develops before 6 months of age), and had undergone numerous strabismus surgeries as a child, leaving her eyes straight, but with no binocular vision. Her descriptions of life without stereovision were probably the hardest parts of the book for me to read, and I expect that’s likely to be true for any parent of a child with monocular vision. I kept wanting to believe that those parts of the book were exaggerated to make for a more compelling story, and I still don’t much like dwelling or re-reading those parts. Vision is quite a personal thing, and different people adapt differently to things like stereoblindness, so I asked my mother, who is also stereoblind, about some of Barry’s stories, and was surprised to have them confirmed, though my mother’s problems are not as severe as Barry’s despcriptions. Like Barry did, my mom does have trouble reading signs while driving and finds it difficult to navigate in unfamiliar settings. On pages 58 and 59, Barry recounts how her stereoblindness led to her driving difficulties.
. . . I paid attention to the input from only one eye at a time. I switched rapidly between the two views, which made my world unstable or jittery, particularly when looking out in the distance. Not surprisingly, I was a pretty lousy driver. . .
“How far in the distance are you looking? he [Barry’s husband] asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe one or two car lengths ahead of me.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Try looking much further in the distance.”
But looking in the distance was unnerving. I felt disoriented, unsure of my location in space. I felt like the car was drifting off the road.
But the book is not just made up of Susan Barry’s story alone, and that is one of the great strengths of this book. The author strikes a very readable, and much more interesting balance between explaining the neurobiology behind how it is that we see, how the field of vision science has developed, and anecdotes from her own life and others who have had similar experiences.
Barry shines when she is giving us the science behind our vision, particularly how it is that we see in three dimensions. Even more intriguingly, she discusses her thoughts on how the brain can rediscover it’s binocular vision pathways in adulthood, something that had been thought to be impossible. Her professional background, as a professor of neurobiology is so apparent in these sections. She is clearly practiced in explaining such complex concepts in a very understandable and engaging way. My understanding of vision is so much more enriched from reading this – her students are lucky! Her descriptions of the history of vision science, and how we have arrived at our current understand of vision and vision treatments are similarly interesting and well-presented. She has done her research, and leads the reader deftly through what must have been pages and pages of articles. She specifically focuses on strabismus and amblyopia (those being the most common reasons for loss of stereovision).
The other highlight of the book are the almost lyrical, and sometimes quite funny, descriptions that she gives of her first encounters with stereovision after starting her vision therapy treatments, from page 123:
When I gained stereopsis, I felt like I was immersed in a medium more substantial than air, a medium on which tree branches, flower blossoms, and pine needles floated. I wondered if this sense of the air was what Monet spoke about in the quote at the beginning of this chapter: “I want the unobtainable . . . I want to paint the air.
After reading those passages, I found myself staring more intently at the branches on trees, noticing how the leaves and twigs stood out from one another, and truly appreciating my ability to perceive the spaces between them. This book would have been worth it just for my newfound gratitude in my sight (though I appreciated much of the rest of the book).
At times, some of the anecdotes, particularly those from other people who have had their similarly stereovision restored, read like advertising testamonials for vision therapy, which dragged the book down. Thankfully, these sections were short, and they did serve the purpose of making the point that her experiences are not unique. Barry also refrains from wholesale denouncing Ophthalmology or surgery as an option for some forms of strabismus, though she calls on them to update their assumptions about the possibilities for treatments later in life. The most hopeful passage of the book for me is from page 151:
While the best approach may vary from patient to patient, one basic principle needs to change. The brain may be more plastic, more responsive to treatments in infancy, but this period of high malleability does not exclude the possibility that improvements can occur later in life [emphasis mine].
I would recommend this book to any one who is interested in vision, or in stories of the wonderous ways in which the brain can adapt and change. I would especially recommend this to parents of children with strabismus or amblyopia, as it provides well-written insights to our children’s vision. If you are one of those parents, though, do keep in mind that some of passages may be difficult, particularly if your child has not developed binocular vision.
Full disclosure: After hearing about this book from many different sources, I ordered the book from my library to review. When I was about two-thirds of the way through, I noticed an email offering me a free copy to review. I responded to the email saying that I was already reading the book, but would love to have a copy to give away to my readers. I was sent two copies to give away, and one copy to keep for myself. I do not believe that that has colored my review of this book, but I feel it’s important to be open about these things. Also, she thanked a couple of librarians in her acknowledgements, and as a librarian myself, I have a very soft spot for people who thank us. That may actually have colored my review more than the free book (actually, I don’t think it did).
Book Give-away: As mentioned above, I’m be giving away two copies of Fixing My Gaze, all the details are in my give-away post.