Susan Barry grew up in a different world from the rest of us. Nothing ever loomed out of the darkness, or swung back and forth. She had trouble focusing on words while reading, and 3-D movies were a waste of time. She had a binocular-vision disorder known as strabismus, which caused her to only see in two dimensions.
That is, until the New England-based neurobiologist and teacher defied conventional medical wisdom that says the adult brain is incapable of change. At age 48, she retrained her brain with the help of a developmental optometrist and woke up in a new world, fascinated by the shapes of everyday things we take for granted, from dripping taps to swinging doors. It turns out, she's not that out of the ordinary. Four percent of the population has some form of strabismus, which means schoolkids are missing out on the treatment they need to improve their reading (and enjoy watching gun-toting guinea pigs wreak havoc in G-Force). On tour for her new book, Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions, Barry shared her take on the shape of things with WW via phone last week.
WW: Can you describe what the "flat" world was like?
Susan Barry: The world was very compressed and flattened with my old way of seeing. If I looked at my reflection in the mirror, my reflection was on the pane of the mirror—it wasn't behind the mirror. And I never got what people meant by "through the looking glass." When I looked out a window, I knew those trees and buildings were not all right at the pane of the window, but that's the way I saw it.
So, what is the eye condition you had?
I had strabismus, which is misaligned eyes. Some people with strabismus are cross-eyed, some people are wall-eyed. When I would look at an object, I looked at it with one eye and I would turn in the other, and alternate them pretty quickly. It wasn't painful, but it meant both eyes were seeing very different views of the world, so my brain couldn't combine the two images. Combining the vision from both eyes is part of the ability to see in 3-D.
When did you first realize you didn't see the same way as other people?
I was 20 years old, in college, and I was taking a neurobiology course. The teacher was talking about cats who had had their eyes misaligned early in life, and he said they didn't have stereopsis, which is the mechanism that allows for 3-D vision.... I left the classroom and I was completely bowled over that maybe I didn't see the world the way the other people did. I went to the library and started reading up. I tried stereovision tests on myself and flunked them all. I was bothered by it, but then I put it aside because I'd been told there was a critical period in the development of 3-D vision in early childhood, and I was too old now to change. I thought, no use crying over spilt milk; you have to move on.
What led you to try to retrain your eyes despite your age?
I had a lot of problems looking in the distance. Everything jittered because my eyes were misaligned; when I drove, it was hard to see road signs. Watching my kids in a school play—their faces were blurry, even though I knew I had 20/20 vision out of both eyes. I wanted to find out if there was a way to make my gaze more stable. I didn't expect to get stereovision.
How did you rewire your brain?
What was key was learning where each eye was looking. Once I knew where I was aiming each eye, then I could...redirect them so they were pointing at the same place at the same time. I'd do exercises for 30 minutes a day, at breakfast, and then see the vision therapist for 45 minutes a week. I went through formal vision therapy for one year, and I still do a few exercises at home, just to keep my vision as good as I can get it... Optometric vision therapy like I had can be very helpful in treating people with certain brain injuries or strokes.
Was there a point in vision training when things finally clicked?
I was sitting down in the driver's seat of my car. I glanced at the steering wheel, and it literally had popped out from the dashboard. It was in its own state, floating in the air, with this palpable pocket of space between the steering wheel and the dashboard, and I had never seen anything like that before. And during the next couple of weeks things kept popping out—I'd look up at the ceiling in my office and the pipes were now floating in space in a separate depth from the top of the ceiling. Sink faucets in particular were just thrusting forward toward me, so it was completely surprising, and also very delightful. It gave me moments of joy.
What can people learn from your book?
Helping other people with their vision is really what I want to do for the rest of my life. One of the things I teach to my class is brain plasticity—how you can learn new things, and how your brain can change throughout life. I really want to encourage my students to pursue their dreams. A lot people tell them, "You can't do this, you can't do that," but your ability to change and improve if you work at something hard enough is really incredible. ￼
Susan Barry reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Aug. 11. Free.