Blind Spots

The Event Horizon“I’m quite sure, Doctor Madison,” said Harrison, staring at the tablet in his hands. “See for yourself. The neuroimaging results are unmistakable.” He handed the tablet to the older man to his right.

Madison manipulated the image on the tablet with the adroitness of a skilled surgeon, rotating the 3-D image of the brain through different axes. Every few seconds he would zoom in on a critical area using a pinching motion and then broaden out by degrees by spreading his fingers slowly, as if reluctant to grasp what he was being given.

“You say you first became aware of your patient’s . . . ability during a routine checkup?”

Harrison nodded. “Yes, I had a chart of common optical illusions taped to a wall in my office. I had put it up to test one of my pediatric patients that morning and forgot about it. A few hours later, this man came in for a routine physical. While I was getting my instruments ready and making small talk, he pointed to the chart and said that there must be something wrong with it because he couldn’t see any of the optical illusions on it.”

Madison raised a skeptical eyebrow as he handed the tablet back to Harrison. “Perhaps he was just very skilled at rationalizing away the explanation.”

“That’s what I thought at first,” Harrison continued. “I ran down the complete chart and then I called up a book of optical illusions on this,” he said, hefting the tablet. “The classics. Kitaoka’s rotating snakes. He said they weren’t moving. The rabbit-duck illusion. He said he could actually see both simultaneously. Color and brightness constancy tricks like the shadowed checkerboard.”

Madison crossed his arms, still unimpressed by the tale being told by his excitable colleague. “So what did you do?”

“I brought him back the following week for a complete battery of tests. I tested him for all three types of optical illusions: literal, physiological, and cognitive. And the results were . . . ” Harrison’s fingers flew over his tablet, then he handed it to Madison. “See for yourself.”

Reluctantly, Madison focused on the charts scrolling down the tablet, then studied the numbers. “It’s possible for someone to fool another person verbally,” he said carefully. “But even the most skilled liar can’t manipulate the results of an fMRI.” He handed the tablet back to Harrison. “If this is real, if your patient really does have some sort of cognitive ability to see through illusions, this could represent a significant breakthrough in our understanding of perception and cognition.”

Harrison nodded. “He could represent the next stage of human evolution.” He looked at his tablet in wonder. “At long last, we could be looking at a way to break the cognition barrier.”

Man has always struggled to overcome barriers to understanding his surroundings. As knowledge has broadened our horizons, we’ve discovered that we’re not at the center of the world, or the solar system, or the universe. Yet, no matter how much we learn, one fundamental barrier remains: our senses. For science cannot ever truly tell us what is; it can only tell us what we observe. Today, Doctors Harrison and Madison are about to come face-to-face with the possibility of a wider view — the opportunity to peer into one of the darker corners . . . of The Event Horizon.

The door to the examination room opened and Harrison and Madison stepped inside. Sitting on the chair in the corner was a pale, balding, mousy man in his indeterminate late 30s, shivering in a hospital gown. He glanced nervously at Madison, but Harrison put the man at ease with an introduction. The man fidgeted with a pair of tortoise-shell glasses.

“Mister Williams, I want you to tell Doctor Madison and me when you first became aware of your inability to see optical illusions.”

Williams shrugged. “Ever since I was a kid,” he said in a nasal voice. “School teachers used to give us these tests, you know? ‘See the moving snakes’ or ‘which line is longer’ or whatever. Everyone else could see the illusions but I couldn’t. At first they thought I was just trying to get attention. Then they thought I was lying. They used to send me to detention and the kids would make fun of me.” Williams squirmed. “So I just shut up about it and didn’t tell anyone.” He pointed to Harrison. “When I came in for the exam last week, I saw the chart on the wall and I just kind of mentioned it. I was thinking that maybe . . .”

Harrison nodded sympathetically. “That maybe we might be able to find an explanation?”

Williams shook his head dejectedly, his eyes fixed on his hands in his lap. “I’m tired of being different. It’s impossible to explain this to people. They literally can’t understand. It’s like the thing with the colors.”

Madison perked up. “What ‘thing about colors’ would that be?”

Williams looked up at Madison for the first time, and Madison shuddered involuntarily. It was as if the nebbishy man’s eyes were looking right through his skin and into his brain. Harrison smiled to himself; he had felt the same thing the first time he met Williams. He could tell that Madison was becoming less skeptical with each moment, just has he had done.

“I see colors that most people don’t. More of them. I don’t know how to describe it. We don’t have words for them because no one’s ever seen them to give them labels. So I’ve made up names for them. But I don’t share them with anyone.” His eyes drifted sadly back to his lap.

Madison forced himself to recover. “Well, this is very interesting, but I’m still not entirely sure that you’re not rationalizing . . . ”

“The blue one,” Williams said, fixing Madison with his penetrating gaze through his thick glasses.

“I’m sorry?”

“The blue Chevrolet. Not the brown one. You haven’t decided which one to buy yet.”

Madison gasped and looked at Harrison in surprise, the blood draining from his face. “How did . . . ”

“I saw it in your mind.”

“You can read minds?”

“It’s not a conjuring trick. It’s not ESP. I literally can see your brain. The electrical signals, the patterns, the meanings they form. I can see everyone’s thoughts. To me, they look like a movie in front of everyone’s face. I have to shift my focus in order to see your face. It’s like looking at masks.” He paused, looking at both men with a pleading, weary expression. “I’ve always had to live in this flat world of masks and hidden things like all of you. But I can see so much more.”

“This is extraordinary,” Madison finally whispered.

“Isn’t it?” Harrison said excitedly.

Williams looked into the two men standing before him. “I see what you have in mind for me. Tests and papers and lectures and fame. Maybe even a Nobel Prize?” Madison blushed. “I’m flattered, Doctor. I didn’t realize how valuable I was.” The sarcasm in William’s voice was palpable, replacing the nasal whine with a deeper note.

Before either doctor could rebut, Williams raised a placating hand. “It’s not your fault. I would be excited too, if I wasn’t so tired of living this way. It’s just hard to believe that Mother Nature would choose me,” he gestured contemptuously to his spindly, balding, gowned body, “to be the harbinger of the future.”

“Please get your clothes on, Mister Williams,” said Harrison. “We’d like to get you out of here and into more comfortable surroundings.”

Williams stood and stretched. “That would be really nice,” he said with a nod. I have a lot more to tell you. This is really only the beginning. It works both ways, you know.”

“What does?” Harrison asked. But Williams just smiled sagely. “What works both ways?”

At that moment, a knock on the exam room door caused both men to turn. A nurse opened the door, looking for Dr. Madison. As the three of them consulted a chart, Williams, unobserved, began to shimmer, waver, and become gradually transparent. Then a multitude of ghostly Williamses seemed to fill the room, each one doing something unique — sitting back down, taking a step forward or backward, scratching his nose. There were young Williamses, old Williamses, fit and trim and athletic Williamses, fat and well-dressed Williamses, fully-dressed Williamses, all in the same room at the same time, together yet not overlapping. A multitude of possible Williamses.

A moment later, the nurse left and closed the door behind her. Madison and Harrison turned back to face Williams, and suddenly all the hundreds of Williamses filling the room coalesced back into the single Williams that had been standing there a few moments before.

“We’ll be outside when you’re ready, Mister Williams,” said Harrison.

Williams smiled broadly, warmly. “I won’t be but a moment,” he said, his penetrating eyes twinkling.

“Esse est percipi,” the 18th-century scientist George Berkeley famously said. “To be is to be perceived.” For Mister Henry Williams, at least, this statement is most literally true. For Henry lives in a private world where people are always much more than they seem, more than they even know. Until now, it has been a lonely world, but perhaps soon Henry may have the pleasure of company on his pleasant journey . . . into The Event Horizon.

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