Monkee’s Teeth

It’s by René Laloux

Cinematic stories have nothing to do with images. Cinematic stories are to do with silence. In silence, the images unpack themselves. Cinematic stories cannot be mediated. They cannot be told. Tell them, and you hide them. Tell them, and you convey nothing. Worse, you make a fetish of your own presence. Shame on you.

Cinematic stories are lunatic. Their selves have come unhinged.


The Eye: what the reviewers said

Ings argues convincingly that the eye has had a profound effect on our language, perception, philosophy and even consciousness… Ings deals with these, as he does all parts of this thoroughly engaging book, with refreshing clarity, enthusiasm and vigour. It’s a real eye-opener, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Doug Johnstone, The Times, March 10, 2007

In The Eye: A Natural History, the novelist and science writer Simon Ings explores evolution’s alleged masterpiece from several perspectives, including optics, physiology, history, medicine and biochemistry. It is a rich and eclectic survey, with an intriguing nugget on almost every page. Ings has done his homework and is not afraid to find fault with new ideas that don’t pass muster. 
Graham Farmelo, Sunday Telegraph, March 24

[Ings] rightly asserts that ‘the story of the eye is epic’, and this is an impressive attempt to summarise its 538-million-year history. There are times when the encyclopaedic scale of the endeavour rather overwhelms the reader, but it’s easy to share his genuine wonder at the sheer oddness of some of the mechanisms of sight. 
P D Smith, the Guardian, June 2

In this ambitious work, Ings reaches into chemistry, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, aesthetics and his own fertile imagination to produce an agglomeration of ideas and themes, aimed at neither the specialist nor the idiot, but somewhere tantalisingly in between. In many ways it’s the perfectly judged popular-science book: he assumes little or no prior knowledge, but he does take for granted an open mind and a certain curiosity. His book will bring out the intelligent 12-year-old in us all. You may even look on the world with new eyes.
Marcus Berkmann, The Spectator, March 31
(requires subscription; the review has been reprinted here)

Ings has succeeded in writing an elegant, entertaining and up-to-date overview of cutting-edge research. He tells the story “episodically”, in a “mix of history, science and anecdote” that is utterly compelling.
Gail Vines, the Independent, April 25

Ings has a good eye for memorable anecdotes and striking facts. More importantly, The Eye is always readable, and Ings is a very good explainer of scientific concepts. 
Robert Hanks, the Telegraph, March 18

The evolution of the human eye sounds a potentially arid subject, but not as treated by Simon Ings, who seamlessly blends natural history with personal observation (the progress of his baby daughter), visual conundrums (illustrations punctuate the text), and a real sense of wonder. 
There are fascinating facts galore: our eyes are never still, for example. As well as entertaining, it’s philosophically profound: showing how our eyes, far from simply absorbing the world, are tools with which we construct our own reality. 
Katie Owen, the Sunday Telegraph, 27 January 2008

Voles communicate by leaving trails of urine that (happily for the hungry kestrel) reflect ultraviolet light. Simon Ings will cheerfully supply you with a whole feast of such tasty morsels in this expansive history of the eye. But while his book may satisfy a nerdy hunger for trivia, it is much more than just a compendium of information, ambitiously blending science with philosophy and drawing on history and anecdotes. The latter, which often focus on his daughter, are impressive for somehow avoiding mawkishness; in one of the book’s most moving sections, Ings considers their respective ageing and sight. It all makes for a surprisingly appealing and readable book, helped along by the odd judicious diagram. Read it and you will never see things in the same way.
Hermione Buckland-Hoby, the Observer, January 27

The mirror of the soul? In Homo sapiens, maybe. But in this account of that remarkable organ, the eye, Ings goes beyond the human… The more complex his material, the clearer his prose becomes. He is equally at ease with mathematics, philosophy, palaeontology and history in this cornucopia of facts and folklore about the eye… this far-ranging and wonderfully eclectic work is popular science at its best. 
Ross Leckie, The Times January 25

Charles Darwin wrote that thinking about the evolution of the eye gave him a “cold shudder”. The organ’s complexity tested his theory to the limits, yet so necessary has eyesight become to species’ survival that some scientists estimate the eye has evolved independently at least 40 times. As Ings puts it, “There are only a handful of really good ideas in nature”, and eyesight is one of them. There is a lot of science in Ings’s account, but it is leavened by engaging forays into history and biography. He relates such fascinating subjects as the ability of the Thai Moken tribe to see underwater, and Woody Allen’s rare skill in raising the inner corners of his eyebrows.
Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times, January 27

‘Popular science’ now too often refers to books about penguins’ feet and the like, so it is a relief to find a work that demonstrates genuine learning and intellectual passion. Simon Ings takes us elegantly through the 600-million-year history of the eye, explaining its differing functions in humans and animals, and discussing philosophical thoughts about vision. The result is a narrative as arresting and remarkable as any fiction, accessible but complete, with the reader assumed to be an intelligent adult on the lookout for something substantial. An excellent guide to one of the world’s true wonders. 
the Telegraph, February 2

Vision in the womb


By April, Natalie had begun, now and again, to sleep. Every so often she closed her lids and kept them shut, and when she did, her eyes trembled, stirring the oxygen-rich liquid, called aquaeous humour, that lies between the iris and the cornea. (The rapid-eye movement that accompanies dreams has at least one very practical purpose: it feeds the front of the eye.(1)) This trembling woke the light-sensitive cells of Natalie’s retinas. Stimulated, her retinal cells fired at random, preserving and strengthening their connections with each other.(2) Even before she saw, Natalie went through the motions of dreaming, and those motions taught the cells in her retina to hold hands.
Prepared by dreams, Natalie’s retinal cells took their next lessons from light. Even before birth, the body is no stranger to illumination. Flesh itself lights up a little, every time a nerve fires(3). Perhaps this familiarity with light is why any young nerve cell, transported to the retina – the body’s most light-sensitive surface – will learn to see, just as every seeing cell, moved elsewhere, becomes an ordinary nerve(4).
The womb is not dark: it is easily penetrated by light from the outside world. From November to July of 2003, the month of her birth, Natalie’s retinas grew to seize what news they could from the amniotic murk of her home. They adapted to darkness and to blur. One layer of nerves grew into light-sensitive cells called rods, the better to gather the light. At birth, Natalie was well on the way to acquiring good nocturnal vision. Babies see well at night.
In the glare of day, though, they are all but blind. (It is one of the ironies of birth that it fills our world with light – and blinds us in the process.) A sunny day is a million times brighter than a night-time nursery, and a whole other form of vision is needed to handle such a glare – a form of vision Natalie had not yet got.
Exposed to the light, Natalie’s eyes had not so much to ‘adapt’ to the brightness of day, so much as acquire a whole new way of seeing.
In her retinas lay another set of nerve cells, distinct from the rods and only distantly related to them.(5) At birth, they were little more than ordinary nerve cells. Once exposed to the glare of day, however, they began to change. Natalie will be six before these ‘cones’ of hers are fully grown, packed as tight as they can be into the fovea – that tiny circle on the retina where images are focused and light explodes with colour.

(1)Maurice DM. 1998. ‘An ophthalmological explanation of REM sleep.’ Experimental Eye Research 66 pp139-145. This article includes some interesting background on Maurice’s work.
(2)Siegel JM. 2005. ‘Functional Implications of Sleep Development.’ PLoS Biology 3/5 p178
(3)Tarusov, BN., Polivoda, AI., Zhuravlev, AI. 1961. ‘Study of the faint spontaneous luminescence of animal cells.’ Biophysics 6 pp83-85. (This paper is one of the inspirations behind space physiologist Karl Simanonok‘s diverting ‘endogenous light theory of conciousness’.)
(4)Cepko, C. Interview with Norman Swan on The health report: the retina and the brain, ABC Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Monday 13 December 1999.
Livesey FJ, Cepko CL. 2001. ‘Vertebrate neural cell-fate determination: lessons from the retina.’ Nature reviews: neuroscience 2/2 pp109-18. (PDF)
(5) The distinction between rods and cones had already arisen in the eyes of jawless fish, swimming in Devonian seas around 400 million years ago. See Bowmaker, J. K. 1991. ‘Evolution of photoreceptors and visual pigments.’ Pp. 63–81 in J. R. Cronly-Dillon and R. L. Gregory, eds. Evolution of the eye and visual pigments. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla.

Teaching the skin to see

Since the early 1970s, Paul Bach-y-Rita has been building prosthetic eyes for the blind: not false eyes, not glass eyes, but fully working organs of vision. With them, Bach-y-Rita – a biomedical engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – has helped the blind to see.

His eyes do not look like eyes. The earliest models look like clothing. Bach-y-Rita’s vests are worn either across the stomach or across the back. Sewn into the material are 256 mechanical vibrators (nicknamed ‘tactors’ because, when they’re activated, the subject can feel their touch). A computer worn at the hip recieves pixellated images from an ultra-low resolution video camera, worn on a pair of eyeglasses, and translates these images into mechanical vibrations, via the tactors. The upshot is a kind of Braille or Pin Art vision.

Bach-y-Rita’s subjects reported that after a couple of hours they were no longer aware of the tingling sensations generated by the vest. They were able to navigate between obstacles, and, eventually, to recognise faces. When the ‘view’ before them changed – because they moved, or because something moved in front of them – they reacted appropriately to the change of view. If you screwed up a piece of paper and threw it at them, they would duck.

Even more suggestive is an experiment reported by Daniel Dennett in which a researcher, without warning, manipulated a zoom button on a volunteer’s camera, making it seem as though he were hurtling forward. The volunteer raised his hands to protect his face. But his vest was strapped to his back.(1)

The artificial sense bestowed upon his blind volunteers by Paul Bach-y-Rita not only works like vision – it feels like vision. It seems that the mind is not overly fussy where it gets its sensory information from. What matters is what ‘shape’ the information takes. If visual information is received through the skin of your back, it only takes your brain a couple of hours to start seeing through your back. If your back starts itching, on the other hand, you won’t mistake the itch for a flash of light. The ‘shape’ of an itch is different to the ‘shape’ of, say, a face, and the brain knows how to deal with each.

The senses become specialized over evolutionary time, but they are never entirely compartmentalised. If we look closely at a rod – a photosensitive cell common to almost all vertebrate eyes – we see that it comes in two parts – a fairly normal-looking cell body, and a column made up of thousands of discs containing the pigment rhodopsin. When the rod is exposed to light, the pigment column expands like a slinky to twice its length, with no increase in width. In the dark, it contracts again. Each rod is behaving just like a muscle cell – and for good reason. In many functional respects, it is a muscle cell. Muscle fibres expand and contract in response to electrical stimulation. The retinal rod, too, is responding to an electrical signal – one that comes, not from a nerve, but from a biochemical reaction to light. This is what the working retina looks like on a cellular scale – a vast automated Pin Art machine.

(1) Dennet, D. 1991. Consciousness Explained. New York, Little Brown & Company, pp339-342
For an overview of Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work, see Paul Bach-y-Rita, Mitchell E. Tyler, and Kurt A. Kaczmarek. 2003. ‘Seeing with the brain.’ International journal of human-computer interaction, 15/2:pp285-295.

In early 2001, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s article Tongue seen as portal to the brain first broke the news of Bach-y-Rita’s return to the sense-substitution field. (Since the late 1970s, he had turned his attention more towards to the rehabilitation of victims of brain damage.) The latest applications of Bach-y-Rita’s work are discussed in Blakeslee,S. 2004. ‘New Tools to Help Patients Reclaim Damaged Senses.’ New York Times, November 23.

See also See also Bach-y-Rita’s commercial website