Vision and Vulnerability

The first international incident of George W. Bush’s presidency took place less than a month after he took office on February 9th, 2001, involving the USS Greeneville, a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine and the Japanese fishing training vessel Ehime Maru, off the coast of Hawaii. The USS Greeneville was conducting a surfacing drill for civilian visitors as part of its public relations efforts. The submarine performed an emergency blow to surface, and as it surfaced, collided with the two-hundred-foot-long Ehime Maru, causing the fishing vessel to sink. Though many aboard managed to reach lifeboats, the collision resulted in the tragic loss of nine lives, including four students and two teachers from Uwajima Fisheries High School in Japan.

The incident generated significant diplomatic tension between the United States and Japan and prompted a thorough investigation to determine the causes and responsibilities behind the collision. The USS Greeneville’s commanding officer, Commander Scott Waddle, took responsibility for the accident and was later court-martialed.

What caused this colossal failure? How could a technologically advanced submarine with state-of-the-art sonar, manned by an experienced crew, fail to detect such a large vessel that was so close by?

 The investigation revealed that insufficient training, a lack of coordination among the submarine’s crew, and inadequate communication played key roles in the tragedy. However, what wasn’t fully explained was how Commander Waddle failed to see the Ehime Maru despite the fact that, as the investigation revealed, he was looking directly at the ship.

Exhaustive enquiries will certainly follow the current war in Israel. However, I am not at all confident that a specific factor that impacted our ability to prevent the breach in our security, and which led to the perpetration of the horrific massacres, kidnappings and ensuing war, will be elucidated. This significant factor, in my view, has to do with the nature of perception and the kind of vulnerability it can cause.

Many of you will have watched in amazement, the video entitled “The Monkey Business Illusion”. If you have not seen this video, then watch now before continuing.

In their book, “The Invisible Gorilla” (2010) Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons expound on this experiment, bringing us to a greater appreciation of the challenge of seeing. A digital eye-tracker can record where, and for how long a subject who is watching the video is actually attending to any particular part of the scene. Using such an eye-tracker, it was established that the subjects who had failed to report “seeing” the gorilla had spent, on average, a full second looking right at it. This was the same amount of time spent by those who did see it.

 Allow me to reiterate: some subjects looked directly at the gorilla, but failed to experience “seeing” it.

Most of us think that the visual pathway is a “one-way street.” In other words, information from a scene in the form of light energy hits our retina, creates a signal that is subsequently transmitted to our visual cortex and in some still not fully-understood way, shows up as an experience in our consciousness. We call this seeing. In fact, this description is not fully accurate because one of the relay centers on that journey from retina to brain (the thalamus) actually receives input from other parts of the brain. The thalamus is not passive; its task is to filter out redundant or irrelevant stimuli from reaching consciousness as the brain seeks goal-relevant information.

This explains how you could have looked directly at the gorilla image, and yet fail to have experienced the sense of  seeing it. In other words, once you had been given the task of counting how many times the white team passes the ball, anything black would have been filtered out of the final percept.  As the unfortunate Captain Waddle is reported to have said, “I wasn’t looking for it, nor did I expect it.”

We have just learned that what we see is greatly affected by what we value, what we expect to see, or even what we would like to see.

 I think, that as Jews our ability to see has been greatly compromised over 2000 years of exile. The basic purpose of vision is to direct action.  If one has no autonomy, then on a certain level  the primary purpose of vision becomes compromised, and therefore seeing becomes somewhat redundant. The only way to survive the ordeal of exile is to deny all the evidence indicating the precariousness of one’s existential situation. As Victor Frankl points out in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, when people interred in the Nazi concentration camps lost faith, they became less likely to survive and they died quicker. Statistically, losing faith that one could indeed survive was the more reasonable position given the circumstances. In other words, denying reality actually increased one’s chances of survival. In suitable proportion, that kind of denial is part of something we call hope, or faith. For example, you might well imagine that after a thousand years of exile, a goodly amount of people sitting at the Seder table would have long given up singing “Next Year in Jerusalem!” After all, nothing had happened in the previous 1000 years to indicate that anything would happen to give cause for optimism for change by the following Seder.  But sing those sacred words we did, and for another 1000 years!

It is undeniable that maintaining that faith required giving less value to what the current visual reality suggested. It was in this psycho-emotional state of faith that we returned to our Land. Herzl famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream!”. However, every worthwhile “it” has to start as a dream, and dreams often include a fabrication of reality. Those who led the return to Zion denied what the facts on the ground suggested. However, they were inspired and managed to inspire others to perceive the resurrection of an ancient people to its ancestral homeland; something that to most people sounded quite fantastic, a grave error in perception.

We often refer to our leaders as men of vision. However, this does not necessarily equate with accurate perception. There is no doubt that as dreamers, their perception of reality was enormously modified by their dreams. Living in the world of imagined possibilities, of agenda-based filtered information, really did result in the foundation and flourishing of the State of Israel.  And it seemed to have worked. Until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, until the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, until the forced transfer of Jews from Gush Katif in 2005…and until October 7th , 2023.

True, it was this “inability” or refusal to see reality, and a dream-driven optimism that, with G-d’s help, enabled us to do what others deemed impossible. However, it was that same inability to perceive reality that has led us again to the darkest of periods. For many of us, the desperate hope for peace combined with a perhaps exaggerated optimism about human nature in certain quarters, prevented brute reality from showing up accurately in our consciousness–with a tragic outcome on many levels.

 Indeed, our visual system operates in such a manner that if you convince yourself of the enemy’s lack of true desire or ability to attack you, you might very well be looking directly at its preparations for brutal attack yet fail to see them.

Given the nature of how we see, it becomes essential to ensure that those national committees responsible for decision-making concerning security issues be comprised of people with diverse political agendas and values. For if they all have the same agenda/hope/belief, they may all fail to perceive any, or even all of the events taking place right before their eyes, that are in conflict with their vested interests.

About the Author
Robert Lederman was Israel's first board-certified Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development(USA). He is a visiting lecturer at the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at Haifa University where he lectures about visual impediments to learning. In addition he lectures both in Israel and abroad about the pervasive nature of vision in human consciousness and the ways that vision development and visual efficiency affect cognitive and motor function.
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