Saturday, May 31, 2008

Do You See What I See?

Today I went to a lovely baby shower during which we guests got to play some cute, enjoyable games, including "The Clothespin Game" and a scratch-and-sniff one called "Who Smells the Stinky Doo?" My favorite game (of course) was one called "Itty Bitty Baby Parts" (photo credit:, which involved matching each of twelve numbered ultrasound images to an item on a list of anatomical parts we got at the beginning of the game. I didn't think I had an unfair advantage, because I skipped the radiology elective my senior year in medical school, and ultrasounds always look like unintelligible, fuzzy, gray stuff to me, but I ended up winning with a score of 10 correct out of 12 (uh...I kinda got the belly button mixed up with something else...)!

In medical school there was at least one anatomy exam during which we had to file silently past tagged body parts and answer questions about the part in question. Sometimes the task was simply to identify it (Wait - what is that arrow pointing to? Just looks like a wad of tissue to me...); other times we had to describe something more detailed, like the path it took from point A to point B in the body, or its physiologic role, or some key molecular mechanism involved in its function or in diseases that marred its function.

Radiology we learned during clinical rotations if we didn't take the formal class. It's amazing to me how much we can infer about people just from the ghostly markings of a chest x-ray - their disease process, their body type, sometimes particular stories about their lives. And yes, there are some astonishing x-rays - foreign objects in places you wouldn't expect them to be...

I like tasks that require me to look at something carefully and perhaps differently from the way I ordinarily see things. For this reason I enjoy "spot the object" illusions, and I've learned a little something about the way I see things. With the ones that require noticing a "big picture" or wide-angle image (take a look at the can-you-see-the-baby image on Dr. Deb's blog), I often find myself saying, "Oh, that's EASY, surely people can see THAT!" But when required to find a smaller object embedded or hidden in a larger picture (see the coffee bean one), I scour and scour and scour and mutter to myself, "Where IS that thing?"

I really liked this mother-and-child-praying one from a gallery of spot-the-object illusions at

But one of my favorite images is not so much an illusion as a startling fusion - "Fluffy Infiltrates" by Day, a Health Volunteers Overseas photo contest winner :

Whether it's a great photograph, an ultrasound, an x-ray, a painting, or a scene in daily life, something that makes us take a moment to look and see in a way that creates new understanding is not only valuable but also in many cases a source of intellectual pleasure. Something about moments of recognition must trigger satisfaction neurotransmitters in our brains. There's nothing like a great "Aha!" moment (especially in the middle of an exam!). Perhaps that pleasure in making sense of something, of things clicking into place, of solving a mystery or deepening comprehension, is more primal than we realize, with roots in our ancient histories. In people looking at the sky and making sense of the stars. In babies, brand new to the world, recognizing their parents' faces at last.

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