While I was in the hospital, huge, blue blobs of light would pulsate around the edges of my vision as though a lava lamp had been cracked open and carefully drizzled on the outside of my eyeballs. They were like morbidly obese slugs oozing in and out, always accentuated by darkness, leaving their illuminated trail over everything my hungry, manic eyes tried to take in. This was not an enjoyable phenomenon – I thought I was going blind! The blue slugs have thankfully crawled back to wherever they came from, but I found out later that I have lost some vision in my left eye. My recent opthamologist appointment confirmed that three months after my release from hospital, my left eye has not yet regained the vision it had lost. I have been told that my lovely little eyeball is perfectly okay, it’s my cantankerous brain that refuses to output the image of appropriate quality. This news came the same day I would once again, venture into the neuroscience frontier. You will not be surprised to know that of all the vast neuroscience terrain I could have landed on that evening, I ended up on the ironic plane of a session entitled: “Vision: A Window into the World?”
The PhD steering the ship that night brought up the concept of “inattentional blindness.” Is attention necessary for perception? She proceeded to put on a video, instructing half the class to pay attention to the individuals in white and the other half to pay attention to the individuals in black. Each group was to count how many times the ball was passed to an individual of their assigned colour. At the end of the video, the PhD asked how many people noticed the man dressed as a gorilla that walked through the scene. About less than half put their hands up. She also brought up this experiment: A student on a busy campus is selected randomly and is approached by an individual involved with the experiment. The individual asks the student for directions. As the student explains, two other individuals carry a door directly past them, pausing only to let the individual talking to the student switch places with another individual who opens the door and walks through. According to the experiment, the student, preoccupied with accurately describing right and left turns, fails to notice the switch. The PhD continued onwards, describing how depending on what our brains are “used to” or terms as “normal” can affect the way we perceive our memories. A man sitting in front of me laughed out loud as he realized that his brain had manipulated his memory of getting out of a car while on a trip to the United Kingdom. In his memory, he would always envision himself (the driver) stepping out of the left side of the car, when, of course, he would have stepped out of the right. At the end of the night, the PhD approached the white board which prominently displayed the question of the night: Vision: A Window into the World? She took her marker and crossed out the last word, replacing it with another: Brain.
Perhaps it is disturbing to realize that what we see is simply the result of how our brain decides (or decides not to) function. I just finished a book by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brilliant neuroscientist who suffered a severe stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Her vision was affected in that she could not decipher the physical boundaries of objects, including her own body. As a result, she felt as though she was a fluid, at one with the universe, a pulsing life force connected to every other being and object. She reminds her readers that everything on Earth is fluid, made up of billions of tiny molecules, always in constant motion. It is our left brain that gives us the ability to see physical boundaries, to see ourselves as a separate “self,” to make material things look solid and stationary.
When I got out of the hospital, the world looked different. My senses were heightened to the millionth degree, perhaps from all the drugs, perhaps it was my brain, I’m not sure. I could still see the physical boundaries of my body, of the trees, but I did not feel a physical boundary between my body and the trees. I looked at a tree and I felt at “one” with it. The tree and I were the same. I looked at other people and felt the same way. It wasn’t an intellectual thought, it was something I felt physiologically deep inside my “being,” which I inherently knew was not the container I called my body.
Gurus and yogi masters from around the world have claimed that this is the correct way to perceive the world around you. They say that this feeling of interconnectedness with the universe is the path to enlightenment. I am not so egotistical or stupid to say that I am enlightened. I do think, however, that because of the condition my brain was in, I was lucky enough to take a glimpse into that way of perceiving the world. That feeling of interconnectedness has faded, of course, but the memory of it feels imprinted on my mind and spirit. I do understand more than ever the kind of discipline and commitment it takes to feel that interconnectedness at all times, but I do think it is possible to have this feeling without a medical catastrophe. Dr. Taylor agrees and says that you don’t have to have a stroke, or in my case, have Lupus Cerebritis in order to experience the euphoric nirvana that comes with having a dominant right brain. She says that deep inner peace comes from “tending the garden of your mind,” by making the conscious choice a million times a day to silence the negative “storyteller” of your left brain. Dr. Taylor’s stroke rendered her motor and communication skills to that of an infant and it took 8 years before she could say with confidence that she was “recovered.” She is living proof of the miraculous resilience and power of the human brain and body when given the time and patient care that it needs.
So, what is my point? I guess it comes down to the fact that we (our eyeballs, our brains, our hearts) see what we want to see. Largely, people with Lupus (or any chronic illness) see their bodies as weak and pathetic; a heavy, dirty, dysfunctional anchor that won’t pull up, dragging at our sides, making our lives miserable. I can’t count how many times I’ve said in my head, “stupid body!” or pleaded angrily, “please just give me a break!” Dr. Taylor takes a completely different stance. Everyday she is in awe of the amazing genius of her victorious brain and body that every night she thanks her billions of cells for another great day: “You go, girls!”
Last night, immediately after I closed Dr. Taylor’s beautiful memoir, I stood in front of my mirror and for the very first time, I thanked my body. I thanked my kidneys and my liver for believing in me enough to come back to full function after the trauma of anaphylactic shock, I thanked it for responding so well to the chemo, I thanked it for always fighting for me, for being patient with me as I grappled with fear and emotion, for furiously refusing to die and to my surprise, I thanked it for being so strong. Before last night, I would have never described my body as strong, but holy crap, it is!
And so, as I wait to see if my little left eyeball will bounce back to it’s pre-wolf attack condition, I think I will make it a habit to thank my “container” daily. I plan to cheer it on as preparation for Thursday’s chemo – “one more honey, just get through one more and it’ll be alright!”
We see what we want to see. I want to see my body kick some serious Lupus a**. There isn’t a lot of room in my vision for Lupus, you see. Maybe just on the peripheral, which is reserved especially for overly aggressive wolf-like creatures… and morbidly obese eye slugs.
For your viewing pleasure: “My Stroke of Insight” – Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor