Sacks Appeal – The Mind’s Eye – Part 4

When Sue Barry called me out of the blue about six years ago I had already been in practice for 27 years.  Being active in the field of developmental optometry I receive many inquiries from doctors and patients, but this call was different.  Sue told me about her success in undertaking vision therapy with a colleague, Dr. Theresa Ruggiero, in Massachusetts.  Her tremendous sense of gain in binocular vision, particularly for stereopsis or binocular depth perception, was tempered by the fact that it took her so long to discover that there was such a thing as optometric vision therapy for her condition.  Here she was, a professor of neurobiology at Mt. Holyoke with a Ph.D. from Princeton, and she had never heard of the field until she set out to search for something more than the advice she received from eye doctors about her visual problems.  Dr. Ruggiero suggested that Sue reach out to several of her colleagues, of whom I happened to be one.

Sue related that she had written to Oliver Sacks about her experiences.  Having read all of his works I didn’t get the connection until learning that she had met him at a launch party in Texas for her husband Dan, an astronaut at the time. Their discussion and subsequent correspondence and collaboration serve as the basis for Stereo Sue, the fifth chapter of The Mind’s Eye.

The original version of Stereo Sue published in The New Yorker on June 19, 2006, appeared with a lovely masthead of a stereo card, the kind used to attain a three dimensional picture in conjunction with the Holmes hand-held stereoscope.  What struck me as odd, when reading through this marvelous book about vision, is that aside from several sketches in Oliver’s chapter about his own visual issues, there isn’t a single image, picture or graphic in the entire book.  Reflecting on it I realize that Oliver is such a gifted writer that his words are evocative of an imagery that graphics can’t do justice.  A case in point is Oliver’s discussion of stereo photography, with which he introduces the concept of stereo vision before introducing us to Stereo Sue.  As an added delight, a footnote informs the reader that by the mid-1850s, a subspecialty of stereo photography, stereo pornography, was well established, though this was of a static type because the photographic processes used at the time required lengthy exposures.  I can visualize Sacks, with a twinkle in his eye, typing that double entendre.

Norman Doidge is a physician who authored an influential book about neuroplasticity that has great bearing on Sue Barry’s experiences.  A few days ago he wrote a book review of The Mind’s Eye for a Canadian newspaper that captures the essence of this chapter.

Doidge notes that in some cases, Sacks’s subjects use their plasticity to rise to a “normal” level of functioning. He writes:  Stereo Sue is the story of Sue Barry, a scientist who grew up with no depth vision. She gained it in adulthood, with training, even though most believed the adult brain was not plastic enough to change. This result is a neuroplastic cure because she, rather than learning to “accommodate” or “compensate” for her problem, actually fixed it with the help of a developmental optometrist.

Few reviewers have grasped the significance of Oliver’s writing about Stereo Sue as well as Doidge, nor credited her and Dr. Ruggiero for their determination and persistence in achieving this neuroplastic cure of her visual problems.  In a beautiful postscript to his chapter, Oliver writes that since acquiring stereoscopy, Sue delights in her “new” sense and finds her world infinitely richer for it.

It would have been preposterous six years ago to anticipate that Sue Barry would change the face of how eye doctors look at binocular vision problems, particularly beyond the so-called critical periods of visual development in childhood.  Yet, somehow, Oliver Sacks was able to envision that, all in his mind’s eye.


– Leonard J. Press, O.D., FCOVD, FAAO

One thought on “Sacks Appeal – The Mind’s Eye – Part 4

  1. Pingback: Oliver Sacks in Paperback and at AMNH in October « The VisionHelp Blog

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