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Recovery From Early Blindness: Technology without Accountability

Eye and Brain, R.L. GregoryThere was a time in my life when I thought a great deal about the nature of reality. During this period I read Gregory’s now classic, Eye and Brain while researching the relationship between the eye and the brain with respect to perception. Discovering R.L. (Richard Langton ) Gregory’s name in the list of essays was like seeing an old friend and piqued my curiosity.

I read “Recovery from Early Blindness” for ITP’s Applications Class and was alternately disappointed and offended by the near clinical disregard for the life of the paper’s human subject who had his vision restored through a series of surgeries. I was unable to relate to the frat-boy exuberance at having a “real live test subject” by which a number of philosophical and psychological theories could be vetted. The information within this paper was obtained by the coin of a man’s bewilderment, suffering, and eventual suicide. The excitement generated and experienced by a society which left a human being to fend for himself after a life-changing event was misplaced at best. While the sensationalism accompanying the successful operation(s) rightfully promoted the careers of key medical personnel, it also possessed a darker side. Throughout the readings and BBC interview, there was an element of thoughtless freak-show curiosity reminiscent of that which accompanied another English medical patient named Joseph Merrick.

Aside from the above, as I read this paper I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the best introduction to the work of one of last century’s better-respected experimental psychologists. Before getting to what was presented in “Recovery from Early Blindness” I’d like to introduce you to some of what I learned from reading “Eye and Brain” and then return to the “Recovery” article.

“Eye and Brain” helped me to begin to understand how easily the mind could be led to misinterpret physical reality through both example and explanation. I remember the book being slow reading as there is an inverse relationship between the impact of a visual phenomenon and the amount of text necessary to explain what you think you saw: the more successful the illusion, the more detailed the hypothesis presented to explain why our brain errs.

The Pogendorff illusion(1860) featured in his book (though not this particular illustration) is a good example. If you click the image you will open a Wolfram page with an abbreviated explanation:
The Poggendorff Illusion (1860)

Hold a piece of paper diagonally along the black line to see how it connects to the red, not the blue line. It’s hard to believe that what you are seeing is wrong even if it is a foot away from you.

Gregory’s “Eye and Brain” is populated with examples like the one above nested between theory and observation. His research contained a number of concepts which I have carried throughout my life. One is that contrary to the ego, the brain doesn’t always know the true nature of visually perceived reality. Another concept is a corollary to the book’s thesis: if information between the eye and brain may be subject to conditions which could create an optical illusion, it follows that communications between the brain and its other sensory systems may also be subject to creating illusory phenomena.

The definition and investigation of the mechanics of how and what we think we see of the world around us is at the very least, intriguing. The concepts are not restricted to neuroscientists and psychologists. An understanding of how the process of moving patterns of photons striking our retinas eventually imparts knowledge of the world around us possesses physical, psychological, and possibly even spiritual significance. If nothing else, this knowledge can increase our sense of awe, wonder, and respect for the amazing biomachines which we inhabit.

If you have ever wondered whether or not “The Big Lie” theory (apart from Orwell’s Animal Farm and advertising) possesses a counterpart in the physical world, the answer is “yes.”

Trust me: I'm a corporation and I want your money

Think Different: Trust corporate iconography.

Routing out the first great deception of life lies in understanding the physics of what occurs when photons impact sensing cells at the tip of your brain through what are essentially twin holes in your head: your eyes are holes which pass light from the world around us directly to your brain.

We live our lives thinking that we are looking out into the world.

This image courtesy Harvard Medical School

The issue is that this assumption is fundamentally inaccurate. The fact is that we assemble images of the external world within our eye and then translate that information such that we project what we see into a spatial volume outside and apart from us.

Light strikes the sensing portion of our eyes creating an image which arrives both inverted and reversed on the sensing region of the optic nerve (retina). This information is then reinterpreted by the brain to be “right side up” as well as flipped to be “right reading.”

Optical data inverted and reversed on interior curve of eye

Optical data is inverted and reversed on interior curve of eye

Images consist of shape, shadow, color, tone, and location in space. What we see in an image may not on its own communicate information vital to the survival of the organism. Inferences regarding danger, proximity, safety, food, hot, cold, sharp, blunt, or useful, occur in the brain which processes visual data. From the battlefield, to the bedroom, and beyond, both eye and brain have evolved to help safely navigate our bodies through rapidly changing scenarios during the challenges of our lifetimes.

The eye is an incredibly complex extension of the brain. While we think that we are seeing everything in our visual field in sharp focus, the reality is that we are not. There is one relatively tiny area in the eye called the fovea which contains the cells which create the sharpest focus of our vision. Adjacent sensing areas do detect imagery but not with the same level of resolution. With a diameter of 1 mm the fovea (point of central focus located at the interior back of the eye) is hard wired to fifty percent of our visual cortex. Through rapid eye movements (saccadic eye movement) we are able to bring sharp focus to our visual world by rotating our eyes up to 500 degrees per second effectively scanning and painting what is in a our field of attention with detailed information.
The answer to the riddle of the image below resides in the fovea.

Akiyoshi's rotating snake illusion

Akiyoshi’s rotating snake illusion

If you focus on one dot for five or six seconds, you should be able to stop the movement within the illusion. The movement stops when you hold focus. Allowing the eyes to scan the area at all sets the image spinning.

Visual perception may be defined as the result of the combined efforts of both eye and brain. The subject is fascinating, rich, complex, and overlaps a number of disciplines.

While “Recovery from Early Blindness” was the research which promoted R.L. Gregory’s career into the forefront of his profession, the essay is out of context with both his later body of work and the significance of the research when it was first published. Reading “Recovery” sixty years later, I was deeply unsettled by the way Mr. Bradford was treated by the operating physician, Gregory, and the social structure in which the subject lived and died. The relatively recent BBC interview with Gregory regarding Sidney Bradford confirmed an attitude that was more about discovery and less about humanity than I was comfortable hearing.

In “Recovery from Early Blindness” Gregory investigated and tested the responses of a fifty-two year old man who had his sight restored through corneal transplants. From a sighted person’s perspective the operation was a success: Sidney Bradford regained his sight in 1958.

The essay establishes that prior to the operation Sidney Bradford was happily married, employed as a machinist, able to cross streets by himself, and according to Gregory, possessed a high degree of self-confidence. After the operation Sidney was unable to hold any type of job, was fearful of crossing streets, became increasingly depressed, and committed suicide on August 2nd, 1960 two years after the surgery.

Once Mr. Bradford became sighted, he was subject to the same workplace standards as sighted machinists were held. Complicating the very real social pressures both in and out of the workplace, Sidney was unable to recognize facial expressions. He also could not identify the faces of his friends and recognized them only when they spoke.

I understand R.L. Gregory’s expression of scientific delight when his research subject expressed surprise at seeing a giraffe, amazement at the rich variety of colors in nature, failed to see depth in pictoral illusions and more. What I do not understand is how Dr. Gregory, the hospital where the surgery was performed, and/or the operating surgeon failed to provide lifetime counseling or assistance for their human lab rat.

This is a morbid illustration of, “the operation was a success but the patient died, slowly over time.” Bradford was not only bewildered and frustrated with his vision: he was also disappointed to his core.

BBC puts a soft spin on a difficult truth
BBC puts a soft spin on a difficult truth in an attempt to ameliorate a guilty conscience.
“His story is in some ways tragic. He suffered one of the greatest handicaps, and yet he lived with energy and enthusiasm. When his handicap was apparently swept away, as by a miracle, he lost his peace and his self-respect.We may feel disappointment at a private dream come true: S.B. found disappointment with what he took to be reality.
R.L. Gregory

Not much remorse, sadness, or acknowledgement of the simple fact that as Sidney Bradford faded from the headlines the good doctors (and society) abandoned their science project to descend into a greater darkness.

Whether or not Sidney Bradford should have been afforded the consideration which research chimpanzees enjoy today is beyond the scope of this text. The greater question revolves around the ethical deployment of technology.  Should technology be brought to bear to “correct” a situation just because it is possible? There are a lot of people who would say “yes” for any of a number of reasons. After reading about the arc of Mr. Bradford’s life, I am no longer certain that my traditionally bullish attitude toward technology is the only path forward.

There is a very real application of a kind of Newtonian physics at work then, now, and into the future.  It is a law of action and reaction. The law of unintended consequences exists in nature, our families, the laboratory, and the work bench. We are all are responsible for what we create and how it effects society and our planet.

Rest in Peace Mr. Bradford.

Peter Terezakis
NYC, October 2012

971 comments to Recovery From Early Blindness: Technology without Accountability

  • Nancy

    Very rich, very provocative post. There’s a bunch of stories here. One is that RLGregory learned a lot, taught us a lot about human sight and perception. Lots of astonishing stuff there. The other story about Mr. Bradford. A great tragedy, and also informative,don’t you think? Mr Bradford wanted the surgery, so he was not forced into it. The fact that sight became a disability for him, IS (though it sounds cold of me to say it) interesting. Something that we sighted people would find it hard to imagine. The way the brain is organized, how he could never really see anything he hadn’t touched (his primary modality) is astonishing when you read it. The human side… and we have to wonder if there were any attempts at helping him.. I can’t imagine knowing how scientists write that they would write about that.Have you seen Dialogues in The Dark (exhibit down by the South Street Seaport).. it’s terrifying to even have a simulated blind experience in NYC…
    And thank you for this very very detailed report on the book. I’ll recommend it to others to read!

  • Hello Nancy,

    Thank you for blocking time from your schedule to both read and comment on my response to “Recovery from Blindness!”

    To be certain, Gregory learned – and shared – a lot by studying Mr. Bradford’s experiences:

    “Studying Bradford’s new vision, and how it developed over the few years remaining to him, was the turning point at least for my appreciation of the wonders of perception.” – “The blind leading the sighted” – Gregory, 2004

    There are a number of unresolved questions in the events surrounding the series of events of the last two years of Sidney Bradford’s life. In “Recovery,” Gregory includes correspondence with Bradford’s wife where the spiral to his end can be tracked. I found her words to be an especially painful read.

    While Bradford probably did want the surgery, I was unable to find any references to the procedure’s cost, follow up care, and/or related hospital costs. It is not difficult to imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Bradford were without the financial resources to cover these expenses. My leap of faith is that Dr. Hirthstein operated on Bradford at the Midlands Hospital (UK) for free; and possibly went so far as to take care of the costs of the hospital stay out of pocket as well.

    The issues that I take exception to are not those of generosity and ability of all who participated in the restoration of vision. I believe that their intentions and ethics were correct. It is the lack of post-operative social care and the continued reference of Bradford’s suicide as “his death” in both Gregory’s literature and the BBC interview (2010).

    Their polished public relations line is an ironic perversion of mopery: consumers of history are presented with an appearance of reality which intentionally conceals what occurred to a man – who for all intents and purposes – remained psychologically blind until his end. Gregory and the BBC whitewash what really occurred, diminishing the negative aspects of Sidney Bradford’s experience by reducing him to a comedic figure, creating humor where there was only confusion:
    “…he enjoyed the flurry of pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and laughed at the giraffes at London Zoo. But in general SB found the visual world a disappointing place. He died less than two years after his sight was restored (Emphasis mine).

    For the same reasons that fall breaks, vacations, a day off, and other gestures of support have been incorporated into academic and working schedules to forestall tragedy, there is much to be learned from Mr. Bradford’s suicide from the perspective of social welfare. The fact that neither the British press or the investigative psychologist acknowledged that Mr. Bradford died by his own hand, robs humanity of any lesson that may be learned from this chapter in the advances of society and technology.

    Given that scientists report facts and observations, it should have been easy for Gregory (and others) to state the fact that Bradford committed suicide. Instead, he fudged his results (literally), by putting a sweeter spin on the truth.

    Dialogues in the Dark sounds like an interesting experience. I once had the opportunity to participate in being led about blindfolded on 23rd Street in both familiar and unfamiliar surroundings for two and a half hours. My time in that self-imposed darkness is yet unforgettable.

    I apologize for having mislead you on my text: it was not a book report per se. It was more of a stream of consciousness homage to a book which proved to be a cornerstone in my professional career populated with anecdotes and observations from literature and conversations. I have a special debt of gratitude to Dr. Joseph Shapiro whose optometric practice is second to his career in the study of perception. It is Joseph’s influence which has lent many of the concepts in my text a vitality which they would not otherwise possess.

  • yj569

    Most of the time, the visual field with its dimensions is exploited because in life, with the exception of the visually impaired, we rely mostly on what we see. Even when our sight is slightly off we are encouraged to use technologies to make it better and clear. There is stress surrounding the visual field and its reach of people. Advertisers and communicators are the main exploiters of this field, while artists make use of this field and its dimensions as well.

    But vision, as Peter here noted, is more complex than to think of it as either clear or blurred, or to believe that its dimensions are something like 2D, 3D, or even 4D. I began pondering about the different dimensions that compose what is seen by the eye into what is understood by the brain. Various psychological studies have explored the questions of perception and interpretation of the visual. To add on Peter’s interesting examples, here is a Youtube series to test the brain perception.

    The relationship I see among them is that our brains’ capacity seems overwhelmed by images. It seems like living under the assumption of an unchanging world, is more about living without constantly looking for changes although we know that changes occur. After reading Change Blindness I conclude that we don’t see any importance in the more common or minimal changes because they don’t alter or affect significantly the way we need to relate to our surroundings, or at least because so we think.

    For instance, I think of the day after hurricane Sandy hit the city, because the environment in my neighborhood had changed so much that my vision was redirected. For example, when crossing the street I was dependent on looking for oncoming cars and not on the broken traffic lights. When walking on the sidewalk I encountered many detours due to the fallen trees, water puddles, and light boxes from some businesses. The visually appeared changes in the neighborhood also suggested that the mobilization around it should change. On a regular basis, whatever changes occur in my neighborhood go unnoticed by me and very likely by most of my neighbors.

  • ssb425

    This was truly an interesting read. I think what Mr. Bradford experienced could be related not only to the visual aspect of human senses, but also to the change in any sensory perception. For Mr. Bradford, the intimidation of being able to use his newly found visual sense in a way that humans with years of experience would, could be one of the factors which led him to the harsh actions he took. Similar signs of intimidation can also come up when you move to a new place where your usual sensory perception is different from others which can lead to loss in confidence and it might take you a while to get it back.

    I see what Peter means when he says that he was once a strong propagator of technology and how in this case, it turned out wrong. I too think that in the recent times, the ‘gospel’ of technology being the ‘right’ way to go has been strongly promoted. We as human beings have made this strong correlation that technology helps ease things irrespective of the good or bad. The intention of the use of technology has been largely debated upon but this correlation still holds irrespective of that. I believe that is something really interesting that Peter has touched upon. Sometimes technology can complicate things instead of making it easy. Such is the case here.

  • wl379

    Peter, thank you for your thorough and moving response. Bradford’s case is tragic, and it is deeply unsettling that there wasn’t public mention of his suicide. Even if one were to accept that he somehow “slipped through the cracks” by not receiving more support once his procedure was completed, to actively withhold information about the manner of his death is irresponsible, and indicates that his situation post-operation was not an oversight, but a sign that he perhaps was never seen to be more than a “human lab rat”. I don’t believe the fact he ended his own life is at odds with the other information gained from the procedure, nor does it doesn’t make the technology any less groundbreaking, it’s just part of a more complete picture. His WHOLE story deserves to be known, not only the convenient parts.
    When I was a kid, I used to look at those eyeball benders and optical illusions. They used to really freak me out. I was terrified to not be able to trust the things I thought I saw, and that contributed to much ridiculous angst and my first “existential crisis” in later adolescent years (are we just alone?? can we ever really understand anything?? etc. awwww). After this phase passed, I became somewhat comforted by the fact that our perceptions are grounded in our physical makeup. What I had previously interpreted as terrifyingly subjective began to make more sense. Nancy, you’re right that as a seeing person it’s hard to imagine that the sense of sight could be seen as a disabling force. I feel the same, my eyesight is terrible and I fear it’s only getting worse with time. To whatever extent, I’ve accepted that people are tethered to their own realities based on their sensory perceptions, and having that so dramatically altered would be a huge undertaking for anyone. I can’t imagine how Bradford felt.