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How Susan Barry re-wired her brain

May 11, 2010

I’m a great fan of Oliver Sacks.

He’s a neurologist, known for his wonderful stories of people whose experience of the world is very different to our own. “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” gives you a flavour of what he writes about.  The movie “Awakenings” starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro was a fictionalized drama based on Dr. Sacks’ true account of events that happened in the late 1960s. The movie is about the victims of an encephalitis epidemic many years ago who have been catatonic ever since, and they are given a new drug which offers the prospect of reviving them. In 2010 he is bringing out a new book “The Mind’s Eye” which I look forward to.

The stereoscope

Seeing in depth; eyes and the amazing brain

As a young girl I used to love looking at three dimensional landscape pictures in my grandmother’s stereoscope when we visited her in the 1930’s. A century before, the English scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone had suspected that our brains ability to provide us with a sensation of depth came from the disparity between the images received by our two eyes. Wheatstone designed the stereoscope that used mirrors to ensure that each eye saw only its own image.

It was always so entertaining to us to see the landscapes on the large sepia cards in the stereoscope stand out in 3D… how the world has changed! Now we have 3D cinema and spectacular full-dome productions in 3D.

Stereo vision.

I have skewed binocular vision due to cataract surgery. My computer screen is always wedge shaped and the keyboard is running up hill! Due to my amazing brain’s adaptability I can barely notice it. Floaters in the eyes are much more irritating…because they are gravity controlled. Try doing any activity with your head down and in come the floaters! Aaargh!

It is amazing how people can go through life  so remarkably well without good binocular vision. My daughter-in-law is one of them.

Susan Barry, currently professor of neuroscience at Mount Holyoake College is another. She had been born cross-eyed, and so viewed the world with one eye at a time: she did not have binocular vision. She was at a party when she happened to meet Dr. Oliver Sacks. She’d had operations to correct her squint and no longer looked cross-eyed to a casual observer, but her eyes were still not working together.  She had remained “happily ignorant” of the fact that she lacked binocular vision until she went to college.

She was told by doctors that vision therapy wouldn’t correct her problem.

But when she was in her late 40s, it became increasingly difficult to see things at a distance. In February, 2002 she was given exercises to do at home and in her next session the improvement in stereo vision was immediate and dramatic!  Sue has written a book about her experiences and in 2006 Oliver Sacks wrote an article on her called “Stereo Sue”. She worked hard on her stereo perception and it has increased measurably—including an ability to even see random-dot stereograms.  These are such fun to experience you should try it! But read the instructions carefully! You need to move close to the screen, almost looking beyond it and then slowly move back…..

Stereogram:teapot on a tray with cup and saucer

What emerges from Sue’s experience is that there seems to be some evidence that if a few binocular cells and circuits have survived the critical period of development, they can be reactivated later.

PLASTICITY AGAIN! See how Susan writes about how to re-wire your brain, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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