November 1st, 2013

It’s a big world after all

If dreams, as Freud famously wrote, are the royal road to the unconscious, then perception must surely be at least a serviceable two-lane highway to our understanding of reality. After cataract surgery gave one of my eyes a very different focal point than the other, I find myself in a strange no-man’s land where I can literally choose between two views of reality. The world I see through my left, now less nearsighted eye, is noticeably bigger than the smaller world to which I have become accustomed and which I still see through my extremely nearsighted right eye.

The effect is especially pronounced with eyeglasses because lenses with high refractive power shrink the image of whatever we see through them. For the present, my eyes are too different to work together to produce a single clear image. I am told this will change when my right eye is surgically balanced with my left and that I will no longer notice the inflated size of everything and everyone around me. In short, my idea of reality will become normal or like that of people who are not myopic.

So how did I miss the fact that I have been living in an artificially miniature world since childhood? First, I had plenty of company. Myopia affects 20 to 25 per cent of people in Western countries while the prevalence is much higher in certain urbanized areas of Southeast Asia. If you are nearsighted in Singapore, for example, you are one among an 80 percent majority of the population. Second, it is easy to adjust to a smaller world when the payoff is the crystal clear vision that comes with your first pair of glasses. Most people would gladly trade large fuzzy images for smaller clear ones and, with both eyes seeing the same picture, you quickly come to believe that the world was always as you see it now.

Because we become who we are through our interaction with the world as we see it, it is not surprising that researchers have been studying the relationship between myopia and personality for a long time. Studies have explored hypotheses derived from the stereotypical idea of nearsighted people as bookish, bespectacled, and reserved introverts but over the years the results have been inconclusive. Lanyon and Giddings (1973), Beedle and Young (1976), and Baldwin (1981) found relationships between myopia and introversion, tolerance to anxiety and tendencies to be overcontrolled, self-confident and reflexive.

In contrast Bullimore and his associates (1989) found no differences in personality characteristics between myopic and non-myopic persons. More recently, van de Berg and associates at the University of Melbourne in 2008 found only a weak association between myopia and agreeableness and openness as measured on the five-factor personality scale.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the finding by Orlitzky, Swanson, and Quartermaine in 2013 that myopic executives are more dominant than their counterparts with better vision. The nearsighted executives in this study are apparently a far cry from the stereotypical reserved introvert. Perhaps, like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, these captains of industry stride like giants through the tiny landscape revealed in their powerful corrective lenses that shrink the world down to a more manageable size.

As I prepare to say good-bye to my old familiar visual world, I can only hope that I will settle into my new reality with as little disruption as possible. With one eye already giving me a preview of the bigger world I am about to enter, I am already experiencing some of the pros and cons of this new way of seeing. Suddenly all of my books have morphed into large-type editions through my left eye and I wonder how they will fit on their shelves when my right eye joins the cause. I am forgetting for a minute that the bookshelves themselves will increase in size the way my television has already begun to do. I have to admit that I like the bigger screen although the once spacious room where the TV sits has become more crowded with furniture that has also ballooned in size.

The effect makes everything look closer while the room looks smaller and I imagine I can cross it in two or three giant steps. Logic tells me this is not possible but, if it were, then, by the same reasoning, I might be able to get to work faster. After all, the hospital at the end of my commute is not as far away as it used to be unless, of course, it just looks closer.

There’s only one way to find out about these things so I better get busy with my experiments. And if we should meet and you see me closing one eye, I am probably not winking at you and we are not sharing an inside joke. It’s just me trying the world on for size.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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