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Archive for December 29th, 2014

Learning to See

amblyopia-cover-eye

 

‘If thine eye be single thy body will be filled with light.’  

 

I have always felt out of place in this world. Besides an atypical temperament and looks I felt like I just saw the world differently from other people.

And so I did, quite literally.

I was diagnosed at an early age with amblyopia, commonly called ‘lazy eye’. There are various forms of this, but in my case it meant that my left eye was so much stronger than my right that my eyes did not work together. While the mind can compensate for a lot, including the resultant shattered vision, it also ‘wants’ to see singly, so I developed a habit, especially in bright light, of closing my right eye so I would see a single image, not a double or a fragmented one. Most of the time I used both eyes, though, and the dominant left would predominate, while the right eye offered a sort of shadow image, if I thought about what I was seeing.

The condition results in perceiving a very different world than normal people, sort of like being color blind, only it affects depth perception. The visual world is less rich, less integrated, more fragmented.

Indeed it occurred to me only recently that this disturbance in spatial perception explains my inability as a young baseball player to catch a fly ball in the outfield. When the ball was in the air I would look up at it and have no idea where it was going to land. I would run up on it and it would fall behind me, or I would back up and it would land in front of me. I don’t think I ever caught a fly ball playing outfield, which combined with my lousy throwing arm meant a humiliating career as an outfielder.

But I was one fine shortstop, a position where speed and instinct are more important than spatial reasoning or a good arm.

And I could never see 3D. I would stare at those patterns that are supposed to transform into vivid images, but only saw the abstract image, never the 3D one.

When I was small they tried an eyepatch over my strong eye, but it never took.

Living with amblyopia, of course, one does not think much about it, or about how much visually richer the world appears to others. One sees the way one sees, the mind compensates, and all appears  ‘normal’, if you don’t know better, which of course you don’t.

I did once, a few years ago, come across a firsthand account by a woman who had done some sort of eye exercise and overcame the syndrome and the way she spoke about the revelatory nature of seeing with both eyes in union made me curious and envious. I tried to find information about this online but all I could find was some dead end links in Malaysia.

Mostly, human nature being resilient, I did not think about it and about the only reminder of my oddness occurred when people commented that my right eye would ‘wander’, gaze off into the distance just beyond them when I was talking to them, which is disconcerting to whoever I am talking to. This happened especially when I was tired, as in my mild case it was not often noticeable (some people’s eyes appear permanently crossed or walleyed).

But then a funny thing happened. I developed cataracts, though I was unaware of what was happening. I at first only knew that something was wrong because I increasingly found trying to paint icons frustrating. My hand-eye coordination was so skewed that I found the act of painting stressful, while it had always been very calming. Eventually I figured out that my right eye did not see clearly and I went to the eye doctor. He diagnosed a cataract on my right eye, and a nascent one on the left, and he prescribed surgery to replace the lenses with some high tech super plastic version of a lens.

After the surgery my right eye, dilated, was blurry. My bride drove me home, left eye shut, When the dilation wore off things gradually came into focus.

And I was amazed. I had thought that with the glasses I had worn since my early 40s that my vision was fine, but my new eye saw details and clarity that amazed me. Colors were brighter, lines more distinct. Everything was vivid.

Certainly nothing compared to my sister, who got glasses when she was ten or so and realized for the first time that when you looked a tree you were supposed to see many leaves,  not a green blur.

But it was still impressive. I had asked my wife to drop me off at the library after the surgery, where the dilation wore off. I walked home with my left eye closed, savoring the delight of all the fine details in the world. It was like being high, everything enhanced.

Since my right eye was now the clear one, I began closing my left eye, which was fuzzy by comparison. It was a few months before I had surgery on the other eye, and in that time my right eye grew strong for the first time. By the time I had my left eye done my eyes were, for the first time in my life, more or less equivalent in strength.

Which means that it gradually dawned on me that I was seeing differently. It is analogous to hearing only in mono and then hearing stereo. There was a depth and dimension that I had never seen before.

And for the first time I could perceive what other people did when they looked at 3D.

But as I have had so many years of habit, I often find myself, if I am not paying attention, reverting to my old way of seeing, even closing my right eye on bright days. It takes some effort to see rightly, with both eyes focused. And in fact my left eye is again the stronger. It takes time to correct lifelong habits at any age, let alone in one’s seventh decade. Only the other day I realized, after work, that my eyes had been reverting to fragmented vision all day.

It takes will and memory to see right.

It is sort of like the spiritual life in that: we know how to see, but without vigilance it is easy to revert to old habits.

But the reward for attentiveness in both realms is a rich one.

And next summer I will see if I can catch a long fly ball in center field.

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