Eyes on the Brain

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

Vision and the Self

How do we construct our own sense of self?

Years ago, when my daughter Jenny was almost two years old, my husband Dan told her a special story. At bedtime, we usually told Jenny make-believe stories, but this story was different because of its very ordinariness. Dan simply told her about her day in the order that things actually happened – what she ate for breakfast, what toys and people she then played with, what she had for lunch, where she had gone in the afternoon, and so on. Jenny’s big eyes widened to the max, and she kept saying “More!... More!” I was fascinated. It was as if Jenny was seeing herself, in her mind’s eye, as her own unique little being doing things over time with other unique beings. Her language at the time may have been too primitive to have told herself her own story, but Dan’s narrative tied it all together.

 Recently, I read several books by Jerome Bruner who suggests that the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives allow us to order and explain our experiences, distinguish ourselves from others, and, indeed, to construct our own sense of self. He describes “self-making” as a narrative art and writes, “There is now evidence that if we lacked the capacity to make stories about ourselves, there would be no such thing as selfhood.” When I read Bruner’s words, I immediately thought back to that time twenty-six years ago when Dan told Jenny about her day.

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 Last year, I received an email from a man I’ll call KB. He had amblyopia (lazy eye) but, like me, learned as an adult how to coordinate his eyes and see in 3D. He described how this experience allowed him to catch fleeting expressions on another person’s face so to understand better their state of mind. He could move through local space better, hand things to people more accurately. People, in turn, responded to him with more warmth and empathy, and he found himself liking people more. “I am beginning to wonder,” he mused, “whether I am in fact the same person I was.”

 I entertained the very same question a few years ago when, out of the blue, an old high school friend sent me an email inviting me to a party at his house. He had invited all the friends from our group in high school, most of whom I hadn’t seen in thirty-seven years. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I had this fear, which I knew was irrational, that if I was surrounded by my old high school crowd, I’d revert to being cross-eyed and stereoblind. In other words, I’d go back to my old self. But, curiosity got the better of me. I went to the party and enjoyed one of the nicest afternoons I’ve ever spent.

 I have received so many emails now from people, like me and KB, who developed stereopsis in adult life that I realize most do struggle to some extent with their sense of identity. Are they the same people that they were before their vision changed? Reading Bruner’s work helped me to answer this question for myself. Our sense of self is continuous but also dynamic. We construct our sense of identity from the stories we tell about ourselves, and these stories help to explain how we came to be the people we are today. All of us experience turning points and life-changing experiences, and these offer new explanations and understandings, requiring us to edit and revise our old stories.

 As a child, I struggled in school with reading and continually felt lost and disoriented. I explained these failings by my slowness, an innate lack of a certain intelligence. When I consulted a developmental optometrist and started vision therapy, however, I learned that I read slowly because my two eyes were pointing to different places on the page; I got lost all the time because, with eyes pointing in different directions, I had a hard time looking in the distance. As I learned to coordinate my eyes and see in 3D, I understood myself better and had to edit the narrative of my childhood. For me and others, the dramatic improvements in our vision brought about changes, not only in our adult selves and our plans for the future, but in the way we shape our own stories, in the way we construct our own sense of self.

 

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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