The James J. Gibson Connection

By Bill Angelos

Chapter 2: The Five Minutes That Changed My World

I remember looking in the window of the Blue Marlin Restaurant a block or so down from the Capitol building in downtown Madison, and seeing Paul for the first time after all those years. The boy I had first met in January of 1947 and had spent four years with within that extraordinary incubating environment we called “Bronx Science” had become a handsome distinguished looking elder.

With that shock of Albert Einstein cum Harpo Marx white hair, and a face lined by Life, he was exactly what I would have asked Central Casting in Hollywood to send me, had I still been living in that strange place, working in my former profession, and looking for someone to play a scientist in a Carol Burnett sketch.

After a delightful lunch during which we skimmed over the last fifty years of our lives, he took me to a little makeshift lab he had set up off-campus. He told me he shared his on-campus lab/office with his three associates, but this one room in a prefab in the nearby town of Middleton was an inexpensive way to access the needed space to set up and maintain the equipment that went into making the device he was so anxious for me to see.

He’d made arrangements for a subject to demonstrate the device for me. She was one of thousands of people whose Vestibular System had been inadvertently all but destroyed by the excessive administering of an antibiotic called Gentamicin. She’d been chosen from a group of similarly afflicted people, primarily because of her proximity to Paul’s lab, and had already shown positive responses to the device on two or three previous occasions before agreeing to demonstrate the device that day.

In retrospect it’s easy to see that my initial confusion was fueled by the fact that the device had been introduced to me by its name at the time—the Tongue Display Unit (TDU)—which quite accurately described what I was told it did and watched it do during the first few minutes of the first demonstration. In fact this iteration of Paul’s invention had been created specifically with that in mind—to provide the subject with an artificially created reference to the horizontal; a process that is generally associated with the human Vestibular System. (Note: More about the “Ahah! moment” that brought about the invention of this "Balance Mode" of Paul's device in the next Chapter.)

Cheryl Schiltz, an attractive young woman in her early 40’s, with obvious balance problems entered Paul lab. She managed to stabilize her movements with the help of a cane and by leaning against objects like walls and tables, whenever she was stationary. We chatted a bit about her then status as a part time student at the University -- And after describing the devastation the loss of the proper use of her Vestibular system had heaped on her daily existence, she proceeded to attach herself to the device while explaining what it felt like if she closed her eyes and wasn't holding onto a support. “It’s like I’m a wet noodle”.

The device, still in its prototypical stages, was sitting on a lab table in the middle of the room. It consisted of a plastic hat containing the part of the device that calibrated her posture, and the device itself, which was about the size of a toaster and was connected to a computer and monitor. Cheryl put the hat on, took a flat cable extending from the device and placed it in her mouth and on her tongue. Prior to actuating it, she “zero balanced” the device by adjusting the tilt of her head, thereby maneuvering a little square on the monitor into a larger square on the screen once she was connected to the device.

Throughout all of this she remained stable by keeping at least a couple of fingers in contact with the table. However once connected to the device, and it was activated, my videocam and I watched her immediately undergo a dramatically discernable change in her tenuous relationship with the environment—beginning with letting go of the table. It was also immediately obvious that her entire body seemed to discard any innate muscular or visceral tension she might have been experiencing from her balancing ordeal and she was suddenly totally relaxed. Then she closed her eyes, meaning that there was no longer even a visual frame of reference for her to know if she was standing upright rather than tilting, or, as I would later learn, even standing! Yet she remained perfectly relaxed and rock steady in her standing position.

I was so surprised by what I saw happening that I turned to Paul and whispered: “She’s going through a change of consciousness!” He whispered back a very communicative: “Shhh!”

At the time, I assumed he was just admonishing me to be quiet and keep watching. It would only be later that I learned that Paul’s admonishment had deeper implications. It was my use of the word “consciousness” that was the cause of his response. As I would soon learn—although this was early 2003—the word “consciousness” was still considered anathema in mainstream Neuroscience circles. In fact, I recall opening a huge recently published "Encyclopedia of Neuroscience" in Paul's office a few days later and found that the word "consciousness" didn't even exist in its Index.

Paul explained that the changes in the subject that began immediately upon activation of the device by a flick of a switch, was taking place by virtue of her physical responses to an electronic display or representation, that functioned similar to a carpenter’s level—a simple device that depicts its relationship to the horizontal. The TDU was now creating the feeling of a horizontal reference line transmitted by a cable via a signal to the subject’s tongue, and was now being used by the subject in place of her dysfunctional Vestibular System. Since her eyes were closed she was now actively adjusting her bodily stance—which prior to connecting to the device was—at best—precarious, with the aid of only the TDU. Moreover—and perhaps more importantly—Cheryl seemed to have lost much if not all of the tenseness that was evidently being caused by the lack of proper equilibrium—and she now appeared to be, “comfortable in her own skin.”

Paul explained further that Cheryl's body was now dynamically adjusting its equilibrium by using only the signal of the straight line she was feeling across her tongue as her frame of reference to the horizontal. If the signal was stronger on the right side of the line that meant she was leaning more in that direction and she adjusted her body until the signal was equalized across the entire line. Likewise, if she felt the signal was stronger on the left side, she adjusted her body accordingly. It all resulted in a state that it seemed as if she was in perfect synch with gravity and the rest of the world.

Now, here’s where my confusion started to take hold, if only subliminally. After about five minutes of this quite dramatic presentation of what the device could do, as I watched the subject open her eyes, remove the device’s cable from her tongue and place it on the table in front of her, I noticed that never once did she reach for any kind of support by way of at least placing her hand on that table again, as she had before the “treatment”. And yet, some kind of residual effect was immediately obvious.

Furthermore when I mentioned to her—as if she didn’t know—that she was still maintaining her balance but without the apparent help of the device, she nodded and underscored what she was feeling with a free-from-stress smile that wasn’t there even before the “treatment”. Something else had also taken place. That same dynamic balancing that occurred while she was connected to the TDU was still going on even after the subject had disconnected from it. Moreover, it lasted for at least a few minutes more—before she began folding up like a paper doll and grabbed hold of the table for support.

How did Paul explain the plain-to-see ongoing normal adjusting between subject and environment that continued after the subject had disconnected from the device—and that we all do without giving any thought to the process? He couldn’t. Yet this, after all, was what the subject was unable to do before connecting to the device. Now, here she was doing it without the help of the device.

He said that if they could figure out what was causing what we saw, which he described as a “therapeutic” effect, a whole new world of possibilities would be opened—possibilities that were never imagined before he and his associates stumbled upon this unanticipated phenomenon. And it was certainly perceived as an unexplainable phenomenon when it was discovered.

On that same first day, one member of Paul's group who assured me before making the following statement, that he was a scientist and not prone to such pronouncements, called it: “A miracle!”

A few weeks later I would build a multimedia website—with abundant video—for Paul to use as a platform for showing what his invention could do. I called the site “My Friend the Miracle Worker” in deference to the statement Paul’s fellow scientist Yuri Danilov had made about Paul’s device and its "therapeutic" capacities. Mr. Danilov—a scientist of the first order—could only explain it as “a miracle.”

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