"On this date in 1054 A.D. the star at the center of what's now the Crab Nebula went super nova, becoming the brightest star on record. It was visible during the day and actually cast shadows on Earth at night. Now, tell us again what you've accomplished with your life?"
- Email message received today from my ancestors
I'm still reading V.S. Ramachandran's "Phantoms in the Brain." All the way up to chapter 5 now - "The Secret Life Of James Thurber." Always glad to read about the secret lives of fellow Ohioans - even those who've been dead for almost 40 years.
I secretly suspect they're the ones having all the fun here.
As lots of people know, Thurber had vision problems. He lost one eye when his brother shot an arrow into it while he was still a child. Vision in the other steadily deteriorated until he was virtually blind.
What's less well known is that his brain seems to have compensated for this decrease in visual stimulation with hallucinations. If what he told his eye doctors can be believed, he actually saw many of the weird people and shapes which populated his cartoons.
Apparently this is not unusual. According to an article in the British medical journal, The Lancet, 60 of 500 visually-impaired people surveyed admitted to experiencing hallucinations - some more than twice a day.
Because they were visually-impaired people, these hallucinations were rather easy to identify. How often the rest of us hallucinate is anybody's guess....
To some extent, of course, we're hallucinating all the time if by "hallucinating" we mean "seeing things with the brain that we aren't seeing with the eyes."
Consider our famous blind spots.
Every normal eye has a blind spot in its field of vision due to the absence of light receptors at the spot on the retina where the optic nerve connects.
It's fun to periodically remind myself of this fact. It keeps me humble and it beats real work any day. I just hold my right eye closed with my fingers, stare at the "o" below on the right with my left eye, and move my face closer and closer to my monitor until the left "o" disappears. What's remarkable, of course, is that my brain doesn't run a crawler saying "Blind spot here - data missing!" Instead, it fills the area in with whatever background is handy.
What is that but a kind of hallucination?
All of which is rather old news - something I probably first learned in 6th grade or on the streets afterschool. What "Phantoms in the Brain" taught me that was startling is that if you substitute a vertical line for the "o" to the left and interrupt it with an anomaly in the center and then repeat the "closed-right-eye / stare-with-left-eye" bit, something rather spookier happens.
Yep, that's right. The brain "sees" a single, full vertical line where none exists!
I finally understand how some people could look at Ronald Reagan and think they were seeing a great president....
Not that I'm perfect, of course. I have my own blind spots that my mind either ignores or fills in when I'm not looking.
At least three were recently brought to my attention.
The most recent came just late night when I was reading Newsweek and the word trattoria appeared in a sentence just as if it were dog bite, seizure, poor payment risk or some other normal collection of letters I've seen written on my medical chart a thousand times. I had no idea what a trattoria might be, but Newsweek was happy to tell me that Indianapolis had a new one thanks to its wonderful mayor - a guy who might soon have a spot in a Bush administration. I felt so... ignorant. Somehow I found the strength to reach for my dictionary despite the firm belief that the magazine was merely yanking my chain by using a made-up word. Wonder of wonders, there it was: "Trattoria: An informal restaurant or tavern serving simple Italian dishes." How bizarre. The straight line of my conception of the dining world was suddenly revealed to have a big red blob in the center of it....
Why it's noteworthy that Indianapolis has a new tavern that serves simple Italian dishes, on the other hand, is far too sad for me to contemplate further.
The least recent of these recent blind spots I've discovered I have involves a singer. Her name is... let's see... Oh, yeah: Mariah Carey. Seems she's now had 14 number one records. More than the Beatles.
So: Why can't I hum a single one?
Try as I might, I can't.
Can I name their titles? One title??
Seems I have a musical blind spot big enough to blot out the entire career of the biggest female singer in world history.
I'm really not sure how this happened. I'm familiar with Alanis Morissette, after all. Sheryl Crow. Suzanne Vega. Whitney Houston. The Spice Girls. It's not as if my mind filled up with the Supremes in the '60s and has been deaf to all female warbling since.
Exactly what the hell else might I be missing??
Even more importantly: What are people less informed than I am missing? And are any of them in charge of keeping these things out of my water supply???
The final blind spot I care to mention today is the '90s.
Yes, the 1990s.
In all the recent hoopla over a new millennium and a new century, the fact that we've also entered a new decade has gone pretty much unremarked. Oh, sure, there's been some debate about what we should call the '00s, but that's it. No one I know has done a '90s retrospective. Tom Brokaw is stuck on his greatest generation and the '30 and '40s. Peter Jennings is big on the century. Some people have gotten cute making lists of the top ten haberdasheries of the last 1000 years and such but no one that I know of has seen fit to examine the years between 1989 and 2000.
It's a temporal, cultural blind spot - a counterpart to the revivals which always occur 20 years after the fact. You know, the '70s had a thing for the '50s with "Happy Days" and "Grease" and we've recently been enjoying (I use the word loosely) various ghosts from the '70s. But the '90s - we're just too damn sick of 'em to even wave goodbye.
To correct this, I tried last night to list as many of the highlights of the '90s as I could. I didn't do very well. I forgot the break-up of the Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela's election, Tonya Harding, the LA riots, Tamagotchis, the Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, the OJ trials, Princess Diana...
I did live through all this - right? I wasn't strung out on drugs or stuck in some poor southern state's psychiatric back ward - was I?
So why do the 1980s seem so much more real??
Why, when my brain looks back over time, does it see a solid temporal time line connecting 1989 and 2000 and not the huge mess sitting there in the middle???
Time to go back to that liquor cabinet of mine to keep my hands from shaking, I'm afraid.
Seems there's never a good super nova around when you need one to take your mind off your shortcomings....
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(©Now by Dan Birtcher with the help of a seeing eye cat)