Saturday, January 14, 2012

Vision Quest

Last summer, pal J.T. and I spent a week canoeing down the Allagash. Afterwards, I noticed something strange: for a brief time, maybe a week or so, something about my vision was different. Better. Mostly I noticed it while driving on the interstate through rural Maine. I kept seeing things way back in the woods that I normally wouldn't have seen: an unusual shrub, a bit of bark texture on a tree, a distant leaf falling, a porcupine moving. A porcupine! The porcupine was what really hit me. I know with certainty that I wouldn't normally have seen that. Or noticed that. Or-- well, which was it? Seen, or noticed?

That is where my latest psycho-physical intellectual expedition began. I couldn't say whether I was seeing better, or noticing better, or both. I pondered what, on the canoe trip, could have changed my vision. Was it being outdoors, mostly? Was it being in so much daylight? Was it focusing more on distance, and less on near things (though I did do a lot of reading, at night)? Was it being in a canoe, with the entire world in motion for most of every day? Was it being on vacation, relaxed, unfindable by my patients? Was it the good company? Was it the Canadian whisky and chocolate puddings I'd consumed on the river?

Aside: My vision is horrid. I got glasses for myopia at age 8, and have worn them essentially every waking moment since. The prescriptions grew incrementally stronger, almost every year, for 30 years. I am long since past the point where, if it were not for corrective lenses, I would be "legally blind". A person with my vision could not possibly navigate the world normally. I have always considered myself extremely fortunate to live in this century, and in this society-- because if I lived in a time or place without opticians, I'm pretty sure I would be dead by now. The sense of having a severely defective body part (two of them, actually) has been a subtle but persistent part of my whole life. If my eyes were teeth, they would be sticking out of the mouth perpendicularly and useless for chewing. If they were legs, then would only bend halfway at the knees, or one would be 6 inches shorter than the other. Sometimes, it has made me angry-- but, because the problem can be "corrected" (and so miraculously well), and because so many others are walking around with the same problem, I never really considered it a "disability", or something to feel sorry for myself about.

Still, it has puzzled me enormously-- how did natural selection let this happen? How did my myopic ancestors manage to find each other in order to reproduce? How did my ancestors even survive long enough to reproduce? Why hasn't this been weeded out? Is there some unsung evolutionary advantage to being nearsighted, a silver lining like sickle cell anemia's protection against malaria? My dozens of past eye-care professionals have not been very interested in these questions. Mostly they have chalked my bad eyes up to, basically, "bad luck". The prevailing attitude has been, "Why worry too much about what caused the problem, when it's so simple to fix?"

Back to the post-canoe experience: Something was better. I realized that I could not at all say whether I was (physically) seeing better, or (mentally) perceiving better. I realized there might not be much difference. I thought about how the eyes are directly hard-wired to the brain with nerves almost half a centimeter thick. I thought of experiments in which people wearing distorting, inverting, or reversing lenses were able to adapt to seeing the world "normally" again. What else is possible?

This all led me to an obscure book by Aldous Huxley called The Art of Seeing, as well as unorthodox reading. I have a strange sense of optimism. More later.