September 10, 2015

The Persistence of the Periphery and Split Brains

For several months I stopped painting, devoting myself to the work of sculpture and drawing. The shift from color to black and white in my blog posts documented this change. Before I dedicated myself to mostly black and white drawings, I made note of a loss of color vision in my left eye following a protracted illness and cataract surgery. As my left eye is my dominant one, the eye through which I focus on my world, this made color perception in general problematic.

Initially, my visual world was split in two - all objects were divided with half one color and the other half a different color (i.e. yellow on the right side and pink on the left). In time, my left eye reasserted its dominance and the colors blended. Still, if I closed my right eye I would see one color world and a different color world with my left eye closed.

I waited for the restoration of normal color vision and it never came. To make matters even more disconcerting, the formal color vision test that I was finally able to obtain revealed a substantial color perception loss in my right eye as well. To this day I am still confused by that because in my perception my right eye is still the "normal" one.

I mentioned to my neuro-opthalmologist at Johns Hopkins that I found my color vision so confusing I felt obliged to give up painting in color. He suggested that I try to paint anyway to document the changes. I didn’t feel like documenting this oddity. My illness generally made me too fatigued to withstand the rigors of oil painting anyway.

In the weeks following my documented change in color perception, I noticed a strange but interesting phenomenon. In the far peripheral vision of my left eye, I would see flashes of "true" color. At least those colors in the left eyed periphery dovetailed with what I saw in my right eye. I decided that I would take the doctor’s advice and attempt to paint what I saw. The painting above is the result. I have named it "The Persistence of the Periphery." The painting is a remake of a study I created of an elderly composer seated backwards on a chair, a fabric tacked to the wall behind him. I painted swaths of color as I see them in my left eye versus my right - green shifting to blue and orange to pink. And swimming around the edges are the flashes of color restored. Sometimes I crossed colors - putting the left eyed distortion on the right and vice versa.

When I spoke to another neuro-opthalmologist about my split vision and showed him an earlier painting I had made of that it jogged a memory for him of something he had studied years ago. When he mentioned "split brain phenomenon" I recognized the same thing that I had studied years ago while a science student in pre-med. It was an old treatment for seizures involving a surgical division of the corpus callosum. This essentially "split" the brain to thwart a seizure from traveling from one hemisphere to the other. Patients survived and the seizures stopped, but they were left with a brain that could not communicate perceptions from one side to the other. I recall an experiment with a split brain patient that had her look into a box with a divider in it. When a photograph of a funny looking naked person was put in the side of the box which she could see with her right eye only the patient laughed but could not tell the researcher why she was laughing.

I still laugh when I see a funny looking naked person and can probably explain why but I have not been formally tested on this. I only know that I now live in two different perceptual color worlds - what I perceive as "normal" on the right and something like a slightly tinted black and white photograph on the left. I can, however, obtain a split view again if I look at an object through a divider. My memory of these split brain patients has insinuated itself into the iconography of my new painting. It is a painting about divided perception, with the old man serving as the block or rift between the two sides. Perhaps I should call him "Mr. Corpus Callosum," in honor of two neurologists who have a natural curiosity.

1 comment:

harriett said...

My goodness Janet! At least you don't have common maladies :)