What it feels like seeing the world flat

stereoblind

The whole story starts when my grandparents realized that my left eye was turning in very often. They were a little concerned about mentioning that to my mum, and weren’t sure how she would take it.

However, time passed and they decided to gain some courage and tell her. My mother´s first reaction was of course guilt and denial. So they decided to secretly take me to the family doctor, and the family doctor referred me to a pediatric ophthalmologist. The suspicion was confirmed – I was diagnosed with infantile Esotropia (eye turning in).

“Your child will not develop sight if we don´t do something now!”, the doctors told them. That ended up in a family crisis, 12 years of treatment, 2 eye surgeries (at age of 3 and 8), uncountable hours of patching, glasses of all graduations imaginable, boring ortoptic exercises and some bullying at school. I am not even going to try adding up how much my parents spent during all of those years, just imagine they had to drive me twice a year to see a strabismus specialist in Uruguay (1,800 km away form my home country) and then follow-on treatment with a local specialist under the monitoring of the Uruguayan one.

What they forgot to mention were the consequences of this eye problem and how it would affect my learning and performance at school, not only academically but in other important areas, like sports. It was not only the bullying because I looked crossed eyed, wore glasses or a patch, but even being stereoblind which I didn´t know until I was 18.

Stereoblindness means that the brain can´t fuse 2 images (one coming from the left eye and the other coming from the right eye) in order to form a 3D one. If you want to know how it is, patch one eye and try to catch an object, or a ball….

Later on in life, when I went to an ophthalmologist for a check up he told me about the bad news:  I would never be able to be an architect because I couldn´t see depth. I was very annoyed. What was he talking about?! Of course I see depth, I can tell when one object is nearer than the other. I can see perspective!

That phrase remained in my head for weeks and I did all kinds of experiments to test if he was right or wrong. My conclusion was: nope, he is wrong – I can see sides of an object, shadow, light and definitely space between objects.

But he was referring to something else I couldn’t quite understand until I started my eye-care startup. The way my brain perceives depth is not the way other brains do. In short, my brain takes other pieces of information to form a concept of depth: shadows, lights, sides of the object. And it works quite well when it comes to seeing static objects. But when something is moving, especially towards me, my brain gets very confused. To give an example, if someone throws a ball to me, I wouldn´t be able to know exactly when it’s going to hit in order to react and catch it. So my first reaction is fear. Same thing with bikes – if I´m walking and see a cyclist coming towards me in the opposite direction, I get nervous and can´t quite decide where to move to in order to avoid a crash.

It happens with maps – I can´t read them, as its so hard to imagine myself in the imaginary streets and blocks. Thank God for Google maps and the arrow, but when it points to the wrong direction I get lost. Actually, I get lost very easily. And that affects my thinking as well. I love problem solving since I am naturally curious and creative, but I get lost many times until I figure out a solution, and it takes me longer to place the parts of a plan in order.

I experience the same anxiety about feeling lost and confused when a ball is coming towards me as when in my mind things look very messy and I am struggling to find some logical order. This happens with maths, and the life-long love-hate relationship I have with it. Figures and concepts don’t link in my mind as fast as words and their meaning do. Therefore I am slower at maths than I am at verbal tasks (I rock at those!). I think I find it more difficult to understand concepts that involve spatial relations than I do decoding symbols (numbers, fractions, etc).

Why is this important? No-one can be perfect, right? We all have to make a trade off at some point. We are good at some things, and bad at others. Well, I am not so sure about that. True – perfection is near to impossible. But what about excellence, or having the oppportunity to become better, and to improve.

I wish I was better at playing sports – I did want to bond with other kids and not distance myself from those activities. I certainly wanted to be better at maths. I still remember crying so hard when I failed an exam even though I studied so much because guess what, my $^%&! eyes missed numbers in an equation and even though my reasoning was right the result was wrong. And I still remember getting to the final of a maths competition and representing my school – I almost felt it was a mistake they made, but it felt so good.

There was no math teacher or academic reinforcement that could teach my brain what the missing link was – they were trying to explain things to me from their own brain´s perspective, not from mine. And that doesn´t work.*

Now I know. And that is priceless. If you know the cause of your flaws you can work on them and stop feeling guity or dumb. Being able to do something and replace guilt with action towards improvement is a matter of justice. And that for me is more important than being perfect.

*Update: I´ve just discovered that I might have something called Dyscalculia, which is a Visual Processing problem that occurs when is hard to decode numbers and math symbols. More to come 😉

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