A Monocular Life, In Perspective

My friend Danny Black was over for lunch yesterday and I accidentally let drop that, although both my eyes work, my brain only uses one eye at a time, which means I have no binocular vision. This came up because we were talking about a place the mate loves to stop for lunch when he’s on the way home from the hospital — a great little family-run taco stand run out of a trailer along the main drag. When the taco place came up in conversation, I had said to the mate, “It’s funny — I’ll always think of that taco trailer as the place where I had binocular vision for a few minutes.” 

Danny asked what I was talking about, so I explained that, for reasons unknown, I only see with my right eye most of the time, even though my left eye works just as well as the right — a little better, in fact. This means that, in practice, I only have monocular vision.

It works like this: If I cover my right eye, then suddenly my left eye vision comes online. It’s like the part of my brain working with the information from my left eye has magically woken up. But if I then uncover the right eye, my vision reception immediately returns to the right eye (only). So apparently my brain doesn’t process my left eye’s vision data unless I force it to, by covering the right eye.

I didn’t even know I had this quirk until I discovered it quite by accident a few years ago. I had gone to get my driver’s license renewed, and the clerk asked me to look into that little black View-Master like-thing, and to tell her what I saw on the right. No problem. X – L – V – P – O. Then she asked me what was on the left. Nothing, I told her. She asked again.

“Nothing,” I said “it’s just black.”

She whispered, “Close your right eye.”

So I did that, and BOOM, up popped a whole bunch of letters on the left side.

The clerk seemed unfazed by this. In fact, her hint to me suggested she’d run into people like me. But I found this a little disconcerting, so I went to my usual eye doctor to ask him if there was something wrong. He did a bunch of playing around. He discovered that, if I took out my contact lenses and took off my glasses — in which case I’m very nearsighted — then my left eye immediately wanders west. (This i already knew, because I knew that the way my son tells whether I have my contact lenses in is to see whether my left eye is wandering.) Then if the eye doctor covered the right eye, the left would come racing in, as if it had been called to duty. Cover the right, the left would wander right back out west. He kept doing this, chuckling at how interesting it is to see my left eye go back and forth just by covering the right.

Finally he explained to me that, for whatever reason, my brain has decided my left eye isn’t worth listening to, unless absolutely necessary. I asked him if this was a problem, especially for driving. He suggested I just make a point of looking over my left shoulder when I wanted to merge to the left. Otherwise, he joked, I should just think of it as holding my left eye’s vision in reserve.

After this, a whole bunch of oddities in my life started to make sense. I realized why, when I’m in a place with diffused light, I have a tendency to bump into things; my brain must usually uses shadows to create a 3-D map of the world, and without the shadows, I’m befuddled. I think this also explained why the first thing I noticed when I was pregnant was my left breast suddenly coming into my field of vision; it had grown big enough to be noticeable by my right eye.

I also wonder if this limited vision is why I often prefer to read about art and architecture, rather than to go out of my way to see it in person. When I read about it, if the critic is very good at her job, it’s as if I’m really seeing it.

When I told a former student, now a friend, about the discovery that my left eye’s vision is essentially asleep, she laughed and told me that she thought I would have noticed that by now. She said she had noticed that, within a few weeks of starting one of my classes class, all of the students who want to participate in discussion move to my right side, while all of the ones who want to stay quiet move to my left, because I never call on anyone raising a hand on my left. After she told me this, I learned to always mechanically scan the room by turning my head, left to right, right to left, every now and then. Which probably makes it look like I’m watching a tennis match while I’m teaching.

If I had to theorize as to why my brain doesn’t take information from the left, I would say this: When I was a kid, my right eye wandered a lot. As a consequence, an eye doctor made me wear an eye patch on my left eye almost all the time I was awake, for months, if not years. I remember I found this really uncomfortable. Not only did my eyelashes keep brushing up against the patch, it was uncomfortable to have my right eye seeing in full while my left eye was forced to see only the inside of the patch. I suspect my brain decided to just go ahead and stop accepting information from the left.

But who knows.

It was about a year ago when the mate and I were stopped at the taco stand. I had just picked him up from rounding at the hospital, and I was sitting in the car, at the wheel, while he went to go get his taco. There was this little girl on line, and she had a very brightly colored skirt, one with lots of pleats. The skirt had pinks and reds and oranges, and it looked suddenly quite incredible to me — as if it were the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen. When the mate got back in the car, I started exclaiming to him about the skirt. He jokingly asked if I was having a stroke.

Then it occurred to me: I was seeing the skirt in 3-D — seeing all the pleats for real — and in fact I was seeing everything in 3-D. As I drove us out of the lot, towards home, I started looking at the trees, and they were astonishing! The depth in the layers of leaves was truly breathtaking.

In about another minute, it was over. (If it hadn’t been, the mate was planning to make me pull over so he could drive.)

You might think that having 3-D for a few minutes and then losing it would feel like a terrible loss. But I just found the whole experience kind of interesting.

The next time it happened, I found it downright hilarious. I had just come out of the Amtrak station in Chicago, off my train, and I had started to walk along the river towards my office. Suddenly I became aware that I had 3-D vision. And it was a really wonderful place to have it — because in that part of Chicago there are all those tall buildings with all that famous architecture, plus the river, the bridges over the river, the boats in the river. I realized I felt like I was walking in a diorama, and it was just incredibly — funny. It seemed like I had magically been shrunk to become one of the HO-scale little plastic people in the train model of Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.

When I got to the office, I tried to explain to my officemates what had happened, and why I find what they see incredibly funny. I even asked why it doesn’t make them laugh non-stop to be in the 3-D world that looks just like silly, contrived, high-def TV. They were mostly just surprised I had never before mentioned that I only see with one eye at a time. They thought it was odd that they didn’t know this about me. I thought it odd that they thought it mattered.

When I told all this to my big brother, who is a graphic artist, he started a campaign to try to get me to see in 3-D. Unlike me, my brother has always had great vision, and he is very visually oriented. He found and sent me a book called Fixing My Gaze, by a woman who had a problem like mine and who managed to get back 3-D vision. I promised him I would read it. But I haven’t yet.

The thing is, it doesn’t bother me to have this weirdness about my anatomy. I’ve even found uses for it. After we watched an episode on “Mythbusters,” where they showed that pirates probably wore eyepatches so that they could quickly adjust to the darkness below deck on a ship (by uncovering the eye that had been kept in the dark), I discovered that, if I have to suddenly switch from a bright place to a dark place or vice versa, all I have to do is close my struggling right eye.

So at night, if I go from our lit bedroom down to the dark kitchen to get a glass of water, all I have to do is close my right eye and “turn on” the left, and the left is ready to deal in the dark. On the highway at night, if headlights blind me, I just temporarily switch to my left eye, and I can see pretty well. (My mate points out that this makes no sense, given what we know about how eyes process light and dark. But it works.)

Much of my professional work has spoken to idea that what is anatomically abnormal statistically speaking can often be experienced by those affected as perfectly normal for them. This is true even when the anatomical abnormality can legitimately be thought of as a physical impairment. After all these years of writing about this, I find that I’ve described my own situation pretty well. Other people think this is primarily an impairment. I think of it as normal in my life, so normal it isn’t worth talking about.

That said, I will admit that part of what keeps me from trying to restore my 3-D vision is plain old fear. I’m afraid that if I try to fix my gaze, I might end up accidentally harming my vision, or giving myself endless headaches. I’m afraid that I might get enough 3-D to stop having all the useful compensatory mechanisms I have functioning, only to lose 3-D again.

But mostly I feel like I don’t need binocular vision. I’m not a graphic artist; text is my medium. And I really enjoy what I do see, especially my brother’s art, and the way sunlight plays on the world, perhaps because both create the perspectives that show me more. I somehow manage to play catch with my son, and I haven’t gotten into a car accident since I was young and stupid. True, I can’t go see 3-D movies; they require that you use both eyes, which of course I can’t do. But I don’t go to the movies much anyway.

As it turns out, this is probably a perfect example of the social model of disability, a concept I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years. Yes, my quirk is an impairment, but it only becomes a disability when the people around me know about it, and think of it as a disability. I guess this experience just makes me yet more inclined to believe people who seem to have significant disabilities who tell us they really are fine. I don’t mind using having to use my field — history — as my means to a life full of perspective. I guess for me, the fourth dimension is plenty enough replacement for the third I lack.