Sunday
Jan302011

Down Syndrome

Published: Giant Robot, Issue 23
Date: Winter, 2001
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It's hard to resist the easy clichés of rebirth, redemption, and salvation when you've had an opportunity to gain a new perspective on life and see things through different eyes. But this was clearly not a character-building experience. It was, if anything, intended to be an exercise of pure scientific fecundity; a pursuit I was willing to bear to reap the ultimate reward of eight months of planning and hypothesizing and people saying it would never happen. And all this rambling spiraled outward from that on-inch classified ad that read: "RESEARCH SUBJECTS NEEDED: Wear goggles that turn the world upside down for two weeks..."

There are goggles, and then there are goggles. And goggles that flip the world a complete 180 degrees are no joke. At least that's what Richard Albistegui-DuBois of the Brain Mapping Division at UCLA told me three months before the study, consisting of a two-week inversion period and four day recovery time, actually got started. The study was allotted $15,000 to design and construct the goggles, and ended up an enormously cumbersome piece of equipment that looked like a prototype form the creator's 10-year-old son. (I would also receive $1,000) The actual goggles consisted of seven corrective lenses in each eyepiece, which were then attached to a frame that was bolted onto a helmet that, along with its huge screw-mounted weights in back to balance out the heavy glass fronts, would have been perfect if I were a Nazi baseball player.

NEUROTICA

BEfore strapping on goggles with inverting powers, I was given a strict psychological evaluation to ensure I was not insane prior to inversion. With little difficulty I fibbed my way through surface-scratching queries of depression, suicide, and lightweight drug abuse. Maybe I stumbled a bit when the psychiatrist asked if "I ever see things that other people don't see." I responded, "In other people? Yes." When I told her I believed myself to be a bit neurotic, she said placatingly, "Oh, we don't use that term anymore." She didn't tell me what expression they do use. And I almost blew it when she asked if I'd ever heard voices and I had to relate the whole Mission Records ghost episode to her night by spectral night.

Although this study was not the first of its kind—the first was launched back in the 1890s by a man named George Stratton, and later on a Russian guy became so accustomed to the upside-down life that he could fly a plane—it was Richard's ticket to a Ph.D. in neurology and the good life. Richard seemed to be a mellow, kind of doughy guy who was obsessed with Babylon 5 and 12-sided die RPGs, the complexities of which were nursery rhymes to him compared to mapping areas of the human brain. There were three specific areas of the brain that Richard planned to observe for change during the inversion period, but I can't remember what any of the are right now. Since the brain is flash-flooded with entirely new visual information, it needs to rework its connections in order to adapt. One of the most immediate impacts of this rewiring is an increase in REM sleep; the most direct effect is more intense and vivid dreaming. I was supposed to articulate my dreams and daily notes on a ini-tape recorder, but since I sound like a stoned Butt-head after a serious hit of nitrous, the tapes I produced did practically nothing to help me, and did probably even less for Richard. It did, however, clear up a lot of questions as to why I am such a complete failure at talking to women.

I was put up in the Clinical Research Center, a wing of the UCLA hospital designated for studies like these, for the duration of the study. I had MRI scans scheduled about every other day, which, at the average length of two hours, added up to nearly 22 hours lying corpse-like in the machine I associated previously only with The Exorcist. I was also required to participate in a daily series of physical and psychological tests designed to mock my inability to walk on the ceiling like Lionel Richie, who, as it happens, also claims the ability to dance on the ceiling.

I wasn't supposed to see upright or "normal" for the two-week period, so when I wasn't wearing the goggles I was wearing some ridiculous-looking sleeping mask that I couldn't dissociate from rich old broads like Zsa Zsa Gabor or Imelda Marcos.

INVERSION CITY

The study was complicated when the consent forms I signed were rejected by the review board, resulting in a 24-hour delay for the study. The next morning I awoke to the soft rappings on my door, one of Richard's characteristically near-apologetic moves that would build to extreme annoyance. The previous day's frantic searching gave way to hopeless resignation, but the goggles finally went on around 5 p.m. With the newly added six pounds, I floundered around like a man who had just cracked himself in the head with a hammer. Finding my way around places now unfamiliar through my lying sense of sight was not as crippling as a complete lack of peripheral vision. It was useless moving my eyes, and to rind anything required me to turn my head back and forth. My difficulties didn't end there. When seeing normally, turning your head to the right causes objects to move toward the left side of your visual field. But with the goggles, turning my head caused objects that should move in the opposite direction, to move in the same direction—an aspect of inversion my brain did not cope with well during my 20-minute half-block walk back to the CRC that left me prostrating at my toilet like it was a golden calf.

Seeing things upside down and backwards isn't quite as disconcerting as you'd think: Though everything is flipped 180 degrees is a huge obstacle, everything around retains its basic structure. You eventually learn to make your rights, lefts; the sky is at your feet but you're not floating and rooms you've never been to before are treated with the heightened suspicion of a Chinese nuclear physicist. In other words, it is entirely possible to adjust to inverted vision without blowing a brain circuit. But the brain, too, is a problem because it constructs particular models of places to you've been to before, which allows you to move about like a pro without much conscious thought. With the goggles, though, I had to tuck that construct back somewhere in the lower cerebrum, while I allowed a newer model to unravel before me. This sort of Zen-like approach to inversion prevented the epic clashing between What Is Supposed To Be and What Is, and allowed What Is to become my foremost—and only moderately trustworthy—guide.

It was only after a couple of days that I regained control over most of my movements. Walking became an exercise reserved not so much for testing purposes, but as a normal means of getting around. My tie on Richard's "Crooked path test" went from a per-inversion 17 seconds to nearly three minutes longer immediately following inversion, before settling somewhere around 47 seconds. Gradually I started to prefer seeing things inverted to seeing nothing at all, and it was never so disorienting to the point where I didn't know where my body was. I never felt like I was walking on clouds or that I would trip over a door frame, and I never ran into any students during my causal stroll through open spaces. But even though maneuvering through crowds was easier than navigating stationary objects in close quarters, walking through campus did present another problem.

THE BEER GOGGLE EFFECT

The goggles had a particular effect much like a drunk's invisible spectacles that, combined with a dampened sense of judgement, produce a radiant and sometimes very generous aura around particular people. In other words, with the goggles on, girls looked hot. Very hot. And not just some of them, but all of them. It was hardly a stretch to tell all women who asked me How She Looked Upside Down that they, including former teen star Blossom, in fact, looked Fantastic Upside Down. So either the UCLA campus is harboring The Most Beautiful Women on Earth, or the inventor spent all 15 large on isolating the beer goggle effect, and should be labeled "Real Genius." Being surrounded by beautiful women might cause a short, bitter, ugly person to complain, but that lament was not mine to bear. My problem was that I trained myself to walk in straight lines by keeping my head square on my shoulders and traveling on a wire parallel to my line of sight. So when one of those unnervingly beautiful women walked by, and while I believed I was discreetly watching her, I had actually turned my head to look, got off my initial straight and narrow path, and was making a beeline straight for her.

Most of the time was not nearly that exciting. When Richard wasn't apologizing to me for everything from my walking into walls to my losing money in the vending machine, he was buy thanking me for being there, one of the few and feeble ways he could keep me from quitting the study, which I pondered daily. After five days my progress had plateaued quickly and was secure in its own complacent belief that That Was Good Enough. Small improvements were seen when all the masses of data were finally examined, but my depth perception was never improved by any recognizable amount. This I tested daily with games of trash-can basketball, and every shot came up short. Even when I stood inches from the receptacle I would lightly toss a Coke can expecting to hear the sound of an uncontested basket, but instead feel the splash of sticky, backwashed soda.

Every day was the same routine: Wake up around 7 a.m., climb into the MRI, continue sleeping (ignoring the hammer party going on around my head and Richard's instructions coming through ancient headphones), and go back to Richard's office for the physical challenge series of tests. When we were finished, Richard and I walked across UCLA for the psychological tests. This was never without some difficulty. There never seemed to be any shortage of stairs for my brain to flip around and twist so that my body was equally capable of tripping both up and down. The first obstacle was that since the goggles provided only a partial and inverted view of the steps, it was hard to tell whether the stairs were going up or down just by looking at them. The handrail would be my savior and when I finally groped and grabbed on, I could continue pretending to be comfortable. The second obstacle was stepping on phantom stairs due to absolute zero peripheral vision—the same reason I continually crashed into walls and doorways. It was more of an embarrassment, really. At the end of a staircase, I had to more or less guess where the last step occurred. If I guessed wrong, I did one of those high-kneed, flat-footed slaps on the pavement that look ridiculous.

By 2:30 p.m., I was usually finished for the day. If I wanted to go outside I would have to call Richard to chaperone me. Not wanting to drag him around and raw more looks usually reserved for circus folk by doing the Goggle-Freak-with-the-Enormous-Head and Man-Child sideshow, I usually just stayed in my room at the CRC. The nurses, who were all sweethearts, got me ice cream, graham crackers, and drinks whenever I wanted them, which was good because most of the hospital food was undercut by a subtle but powerful greasiness that managed not only to permeate every hot plate of food, but also the towels and random pockets of bathroom air. The nurses were under strict instructions to keep me happy and thus keep me from quitting the study out of complete ennui. To pass the time, I watched a lot of TV—which was easier than reading a book, which itself required closing one eye (because my lines of sight converged about four feet in front of me) and holding the book upright about two inches from my face. I did, however, manage to finish Falkner's The Sound and the Fury.

YANKING THE PLUG

The day the goggles came off was a day of great excitement and nervous grandeur because no one knew for sure what was going to happen. I sat in the office, and Richard and his co-conspirators stood around me in salivary anticipation. I had peeked out once or twice during the study just to see what this readjustment was all about, and during those fractions of a second what I saw told me to quickly put the goggles back on before I got too dizzy and fell over. So with some apprehension and some sadness about crushing everything I had worked so leisurely to achieve, I pulled the damn thing off. And when I reopened my eyes, it was as if someone was squeegeeing my eyeballs and New Upright Vision replaced the old as it moved downward. The world seemed unstable—people, words, and inanimate objects seemed to have a not-so-strange, dream-like wobble, and I felt like I just drunk a soda out of Jeffrey Dahmer's refrigerator. It was not a joyous occasion. Motor skills, however, returned to pre-inveresion normal within hours, although looming nausea threatened to drop me like you would a handful of shit.

There were, unfortunately, no permanent side effects and/or super powers gained from being subjected to an inverted world. If I were an older, wiser man, I'd reflect on the opportunity the experience had offered me: to see the world differently and gain new insight on living, to realize what it's like to almost completely put your life on hold for two-and-a-half weeks, and to appreciate my sacred, correctable vision. But instead, all I think about is sex. And since I am moderately young and have a strong desire to be highly sexually active, I made the decision to get laid by the following week. Unlike my previous victory over the inverted world, however, by the week's end I came up, in a sense, empty handed.