Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Eyesight and Vision

I leaned into the last loop of the S-curve on the road that leads me home. On the edge of the road about 25 yards ahead I saw a black squirrel, sitting on his haunches, tiny little rodent hands up to his mouth.

Except that it wasn’t a squirrel.

The eyes and the brain, co-perpetrators of fraud, tend to create objects that aren’t really there. The rods and cones and that magical lens that turns images upside down toss neurological impulses onto the brain which chooses to interpret the impulses as something familiar, something it knows. So a dark object on the side of a dirt road, about 10 inches high and 4 inches wide, exhibiting just the slightest amount of movement would be, in the less-than-a-second processing time of the brain, a squirrel.

Except that, as previously pointed out, it wasn’t.It was a corner of a dark plastic trash bag, one thrown or having flown out of the bed of a pick-up truck and having been buried under the dirt by the tires of a couple of weeks’ worth of cars and trucks and tractors. And since the throwing/flying of such bags has become, unfortunately, an increasingly more frequent event on my road, it took only another half-second for my brain to adjust and send the slightly less familiar, but more accurate message.

It is amazing to me the speed with which we see, interpret and react. In the unmeasurable length of time between seeing the squirrel and seeing the trash bag, I thought, "Gee, a squirrel. He’s black. I haven’t seen a black squirrel in a long time. Aren’t they usually around in winter? How cool is that, a black squirrel in summer! I hope he doesn’t run out in front of me. But it’s really not a squirrel. No, it’s a trash bag. That makes me so mad. Why do people throw trash on the road?" All within the time it took me to blink my eyes once.

One of our Juvenile Court judges is fond of explaining to young speeders that it takes an average of 1.5 seconds for a driver to respond to a visual stimulus by braking. "If you’re driving 70 miles an hour," he tells them, "you will have already traveled 160 feet before you can get your foot on the brake."

I was driving considerably less than 70 miles an hour that afternoon, so I’d probably gone only 50 feet or so when I lifted my foot toward the brake, another 25 when I realized the squirrel was not a squirrel.And – This is where I got really confused. – another 25 when my brain recalibrated again to determine that the squirrel that was a trash bag was, in fact, a squirrel.

A black squirrel sitting on his haunches, tiny little rodent hands up to his mouth.

Expectancy trumped by cynicism surprised by reality.

A few months ago I cut a cartoon out of the Sunday paper. A brother is looking for his little sister and finally finds her sitting at the base of a tree in which there is a tiny red door. "What are you doing?" he asks.

"Waiting to see the elf."

"There’s no elf," the exasperated brother explains. "The crazy old cartoonist who used to live here put that fake door on the tree to fool his kids."

Totally nonplused, the little sister insists that she has seen the elf herself. Big brother, obviously worldly wise and impatient, says, "I’ll believe it when I see it," and walks away.

Little sister retakes her seat at the base of the tree, props her elbows on her knees and says, "Sometimes things have to be believed to be seen."

I drove slowly past the black squirrel who, at the last moment, darted into the ditch. It bothered me that my brain had been so quick to adjust its perception, so eager to change delight to disgust, so ready to see what wasn’t really there. When did I start seeing a trash bag in every squirrel? When did it become not just easy, but automatic to choose the ordinary over the magical? When, I want to know, did I become the big brother instead of the little sister?

Copyright 2010

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