Thursday, June 13, 2013


I have a new companion, a black spot slightly larger than a pinhead that bounces around in the vision of my left eye. Sometimes it is accompanied by a crescent that flashes at the very edge of my peripheral vision.  The spot, which I have wittily dubbed Spot, is an eye floater, and it seems to drift aimlessly around, particularly when I’m looking at my computer screen. My research tells me that while annoying, my new buddy is a very common occurrence and not a cause for alarm.
These things typically appear when tiny pieces of the eye's gel-like vitreous come loose within the inner back portion of the eye. Another sign of aging: When we are born and throughout our youth, the vitreous has a gel-like consistency. But as we age, the vitreous begins to dissolve and liquefy to create a watery center. The result is that some still-solid gel particles occasionally will travel around in the more liquid center of the vitreous. Hence, floaters. Actually, I can't see these tiny bits of debris floating loose within my eye; I see their shadows, cast on my retina as light passes through my eye.

The flashes may be cause for concern, but I’m not going to take the time to worry about them now. My understanding of the phenomena is that ordinarily, light entering my eye stimulates the retina. This produces an electrical impulse, which the optic nerve transmits to the brain. The brain then interprets this impulse as light or some type of image. If the retina is mechanically stimulated (physically touched), a similar electrical impulse is sent to the brain. This impulse is then interpreted as a "flicker" of light.

When the retina is torn or detached from the back of the eye, it’s common to see a flash or flicker of light. Depending on the extent of the tear or detachment, these flashes of light might be short-lived or continue indefinitely until the retina is repaired. The technical name is photopsia, and it may also occur after a blow to the head. Then, it’s called "seeing stars." This happened to me only once, back when I practiced martial arts with a degree of fanaticism and my sensei, using an ultra-secret Zen Japanese fighting technique, launched me in a graceful arc across the room. I landed on my head.  The stars I saw were very pretty and multicolored but even I had good enough sense to realize this was not something you might want to repeat too often.

I find interesting both the aging process and the attendant small and large changes our bodies undergo. Floaters, flashes, alternating blood pressure, the small holes we develop in our random and near-term memory. It is fascinating to me how little we know of our own bodies’ and minds’ basic functions.  We are not furnished an operator’s manual at birth; we take care of ourselves in mostly haphazard fashion, and even the experts will admit that our knowledge base of what can go wrong is woefully inadequate.  We may know what an illness or disease is, and have a basic knowledge of its effects upon flesh and bones, but we don’t know how to cure. We can medicate, offer palliative advice, and treat symptoms without touching upon the core problem. We know how to cut and remove and have built massive industries to deal with pain, discomfort and, eventually, death, but an insider’s understanding of what really is going on continues to elude us. We have managed to lengthen life and eradicate many woes--chickenpox comes to mind--without a complete understanding of how we react to stress, pollution and other environmental factors. We seek to treat life without knowing how life came about, and there, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. Is it really possible to cure without knowing origins?

My floaters have been particularly active this morning though I’ve not had any flashes of light. In the grand scheme of things, they’re pretty small potatoes, adequately explainable and non-life-threatening.  Today my area is under a fairly rare tornado watch. Now that’s interesting.




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