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I can still remember the day that Curious George saved my vision.
It was 1986 and I was 5. The day before, I had had surgery to correct my crossed eyes at a hospital in Halifax.
As an after-effect of the operation, I woke up the next day with guck in both my eyes. “I’m blind!” I wailed. “I’m never going to see again!”
My astute parents knew that the best way to placate me would be with my favourite cartoon character. A moment later, the TV was on, and my mother was saying: “Curious George is on.”
All of a sudden my eyes were open and I could see again.
I am one of the roughly 5 per cent of Canadians with some degree of strabismus, a condition in which the eyes do not align properly.
In severe cases, being cross-eyed or wall-eyed can bring severe headaches as the brain tries to process two different images. Fortunately, I did not suffer any of that, and the surgery to straighten my crossed-in eyes was mostly cosmetic; unfortunately, it came too late to allow me to develop binocular vision.
When you are an infant, your brain learns how to combine the different images it receives from each of your eyes, fusing them into a single image. This is binocular vision.
The fusion allows you to perceive depth. When you focus your eyes on an object, the information your brain receives allows you to gauge how far away it is, as well as its size.
My young brain never learned how to fuse those two different images together. In fact, my brain compensates by only looking out of one eye at a time. I can see perfectly well out of each eye, but only one at a time.
To me, looking out the window and looking at a photograph are exactly the same. Everything, and everyone, I see are flat. I can’t even conceptualize what a world with depth would look like.
I gauge depth in other ways. I compare things: An adult is usually a bit less than two metres tall, and if I see an adult standing beside a tree, I can use that to figure out how tall the tree is.
Occasionally, I force myself to see two images by looking at an object, then shifting a bit to the side to look at it from a slightly different angle. I am mimicking the parallax effect of seeing two simultaneous images by looking at the same thing twice, shifted.
Still, these methods are not perfect and I generally have a hard time telling how far away something might be.
There are one or two benefits to the way I see, however. For one, I have never had a fear of heights. When I look out of a window or from the top of a mountain, I can’t tell if the ground is 10 metres away or 50. I loved climbing trees as a child and never worried about how high up I was.
When I tell people I have no depth perception, I am almost always asked the same question: “How can you drive a car?”
The most honest answer is that big things are usually closer to you. If a car looks really big, I’d better hit the brakes. On my very first day with a driver’s licence, I learned this lesson the hard way: I backed out of a driveway into a neighbour’s car. He was, thankfully, understanding and I’ve been overcautious (and incident-free) since then.
I try not to tell people about my lack of depth perception until after they have been in my car – they seem more comfortable with the idea once they’ve seen that I drive safely.
A few years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker by Oliver Sacks called Stereo Sue, about a woman from New England who has a similar background to me. Through a series of therapy sessions and exercises, Sue taught her brain how to perceive depth, and saw in three dimensions for the first time as an adult.
I was intrigued. I had never thought of myself as missing out on the experience of vision, but Sue’s description of seeing snow fall for the first time with depth awakened a desire in me to experience the world the same way everyone else does.
I went to the binocular vision clinic at the Université de Montréal, but after three hours of testing was told I had had the surgery too late, and my brain would never achieve binocular vision.
I was disappointed, but had no feeling of loss. I’ve never had depth perception, and don’t really understand what I’m missing.
While I may not be able to conceive of how you see the world, you can experience what it is like for me. If you put a patch over one eye for several hours, you will temporarily lose depth perception and experience the same flat world that I do. Try catching a ball or throwing a wad of paper in the garbage can. You will most likely miss.
My basketball coach used to chastise me for looking at the floor before attempting a shot – before I told him that looking at the lines on the floor was the only way I could gauge how hard to throw the ball.
I live in the same three-dimensional world as everyone else; I just don’t see it that way. So, please forgive me if I get frustrated when I have to pay extra for a 3-D movie, or if it takes me a little bit longer to park my car.
Things work just a little bit differently for me in Flatworld.
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