Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Seeing Yourself Differently Through Reframing

Reframing can help you feel less like a victim.

When my kids were younger and still living at home, our house would get cluttered and messy. When I had a fit about this, my husband would try to "reframe" the situation by saying, "Now, Sue, you could have a perfectly neat house if we had no kids. Would you want that?"

To which I would answer, "Why does this have to be an either/or? Why can't the kids be a little neater?"

But my husband had a point. The children are grown now and living on their own. While the house is a lot neater, I sure do miss them.

The other day I was able to "reframe" a situation for one of my students. We were talking over coffee, but she hardly looked up from her coffee mug. She is cross-eyed like I once was and watching her act so shyly brought back old memories. While I was growing up, my crossed eyes brought me frequent, small humiliations. I was slow and clumsy and had a hard time learning to read and drive. Although three surgeries made my eyes look straighter, I still had to open my eyes wide and stare straight ahead to keep them from "wandering." As a result, I had the look of a startled bug. When other kids teased me, I stopped looking directly at people. Then my teachers would say, "Look at me when I talk to you!" It wasn't until I undertook optometric vision therapy at age 48 that I learned to straighten my eyes, see in 3D, and look confidently into another person's eyes.

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So I told my student about my crossed eyes, and then I pointed out to her that her strabismus was not a failing on her part but, in some ways, an adaptation to her visual problems. Her eyes may have been slightly misaligned in infancy. As a result, they were not looking at the same region of space causing her to experience both double vision and ‘visual confusion.' Visual confusion results because the brain assumes that the two eyes are looking at the same place in space. If one of her eyes was looking, let's say at a face, and the other eye was looking at a clock, then her brain assumed that the face and the clock were in the same place, and she saw the face and the clock superimposed!

These problems became untenable when she reached three to four months of age, the period during which a child first starts reaching for objects. How was she going to grab that tempting toy hanging from her crib if she saw two images of it or if two toys separated in space appeared to her to be located in the same place?

To solve this problem, my student learned to ignore or suppress the input from one eye. This eliminated double vision and visual confusion and allowed her to guide her movements using predominantly the input from one eye. Now, here's where the adaptation I mentioned to my student comes in. It's easier to suppress an eye if you turn it in.

We see images most clearly if they fall on the central part of the retina. If one eye is looking directly at an object, that object's image is cast on the central part of the retina, and the object is seen in detail. If the other eye is turned in or out, then the image of the object is cast on a non-central part of the turned eye's retina and is seen less clearly. Under these conditions, it is easier to discount the displaced image from the turned eye.

Suddenly my student sat up straighter and looked directly at me. "Do you mean to say that the way I move my eyes isn't all bad?" she asked.

"Not all bad," I answered. "You aren't seeing as well as others, but you've found a way to adapt to the conflicting input from your two eyes so that you can locate things and move with reasonable accuracy."

"Thanks for that," she said, "I never thought about my crossed eyes in that way."

I didn't help my student see any better, but maybe by reframing her situation, I gave her a new way to see herself.

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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