In his 1973 book Thick Description, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz used the example of winking versus twitching to explain what it is that anthropologists should strive to do.
An eye twitch and a wink can look identical. But a wink, Geertz explained, is an intentional signal. "To wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code." A twitch, on the other hand, is not intentional. It's not meant to convey meaning.
The job of the anthropologist, Geertz argued, was not merely to record facts and events (such as that a person's eye moved) but to be able to interpret the cultural meaning of those events. To be able to differentiate a wink from a twitch.
With that in mind, consider this story reported in the Miami Herald (Apr 30, 1939) about a young man whose eye twitches were constantly misinterpreted:
Some of us wink or blink more than others do. This generally is ascribable to one's physical or nervous condition. Sometimes the winking we cannot control leads to embarrassments. . .
Such a case was reported some years ago by Dr. Francis C. Grant, an eminent neurologist of Philadelphia, Pa. He had a patient—a young man—whose left eye continually winked every time he sat eating at a table.
Whenever this youth dined in a restaurant, his jaws worked sidewise while chewing food. This caused his right jaw muscles to tug at the muscles controlling his left eye, so that every time he chewed his left eye seemed to wink.
Girls believed the youth was flirting with them. They responded, if flirtatious, or, if not, complained to the manager. In either case, the youth was embarrassed by his muscular malady.
Finally, he was compelled to eat alone at home. He was on the verge of becoming a hermit when he decided to consult Dr. Grant. Examination revealed the "short circuit" cause of his strange "jaw wink" and an operation was performed. The muscles, restored to normal action, ended the distressing condition and the youth could eat normally thereafter.
What I find odd is that I came across these two bits of information (first about Geertz, and second about the jaw-winking young man) while reading completely unrelated texts on back-to-back days. A strange coincidence!
You can read more about Geertz's thoughts on winking and twitching here.
You can read more about 'jaw winking' (aka Marcus Gunn Syndrome) at rarediseases.org.
William Horatio Bates was a New York ophthalmologist who claimed that poor vision could be cured through eye exercises. He was quite well known in the 1920s and 30s.
One of his eye exercises was called "nose writing." Here it's described by Margaret Darst Corbett (an "authorized instructor" of his method) in her 1953 book How to Improve Your Sight:
Aldous Huxley was also a fan of the 'Bates Method' and of nose writing, which he described in his 1942 book The Art of Seeing:
Another excellent procedure, which is simultaneously an exercise in mind-body coordination, an imagination drill, and a small-scale shift, is "nose-writing." sitting down comfortably in an easy chair, close your eyes and imagine that you have a good long pencil attached to the end of your nose. (Lovers of Edward Lear will remember his pictures of the 'Dong.') Equipped with this instrument, move your head and neck so as to write with your protracted nose upon an imaginary sheet of paper (or, if the pencil is thought of as being white, on an imaginary blackboard) eight or nine inches in front of your face.
I don't think mainstream ophthalmologists have ever put any stock in the benefits of nose writing, but it still has promoters. See the video below.
June 1955: Peter Barr struck the palm of his left hand with his right fist to stress a point while arguing with his wife. And suddenly he was able to see again. He had been completely blind for three years.
London Daily Telegraph - June 3, 1955
Other cases of accidental cures we've previously posted about:
I'm surprised someone isn't selling a battery-operated version of these today as a gag gift. Wouldn't even need to be for motorists. Perfect for anyone out for a stroll in the rain.
The Oklahoma Freedom Call - Feb 8, 1934
"Miss Paddie Naismith, noted English racing chauffeur, is shown wearing the very latest in motor modes, rain goggles, with wipers 'n' everything. A small fan, you can see it over the bridge of the nose, operates the wipers when the car is travelling at speeds in excess of 15 M.P.H. Its inventor is L.A.V. Davoren of London." — International News Photo, Oct 1933 image source: reddit
'Swindle's Ghost' is a term for an optical illusion that some psychologists have offered as a possible scientific explanation for ghost sightings. Actually, I doubt that many sightings are a result of this phenomenon, but I like the name.
Newsday Special Correspondent Paul Brock (May 15, 1967) offered this explanation:
One after-image, which psychologists believe has given rise to many reports of nocturnal apparitions, is called "Swindle's Ghost." It was first described by the American psychologist P.F. Swindle, about 45 years ago.
It can be summoned up by anybody. Using no more ectoplasm than a table lamp, friends can join you in this weird experiment, right in your own living room. Choose a dark moonless night and draw the drapes securely so that no stray light from street lamps or passing cars enters the room. Group the chairs near a table or floor lamp with one person directly alongside it to switch it on and off.
First, everyone must remain in the darkened room for at least 10 minutes before the experiment begins, so that the eyes can adjust completely to the darkness. Then, each ghosthunter must look steadily toward the lamp but not directly at it. They must keep perfectly still and keep the eyes from moving during the time the room will be illuminated and immediately afterward.
Now turn on the lamp for a full second. Turn it off. Shortly after you will see the whole scene loom up in the darkness with startling clarity, and the ghost impression will last for some time. Not only will everything appear exactly as it was when the light was on, but many precise details will be evident which could not possibly have been noted during the brief illumination...
The same optical illusion occurs when someone reports that he has seen a ghost in a graveyard at night. If a man is passing a graveyard at night and the moon breaks through the clouds just as he is opposite a white tombstone, in a few minutes he might see a vague white form loom up before him. The moon's illumination has created the 'ghost' which the man actually does see, but which is only an after-image— in the image of "Swindle's Ghost."
Swindle observed that if one experiences a very bright flash, one achieves a very powerful positive afterimage that may last over a period of hours. "Swindle's Ghost," as it is referred to occasionally, is a conscious image sustained purely by cortical activity; it is an image created by a stimulus that is not present during later observation. In spite of the absence of a distal stimulus, the image is very real. Observations by Gregory, Wallace, and Campbell (1959) and Davies (1973) attests to just how real it is; if a Swindle's Ghost image is a corridor, and one walks down it in total darkness, one seems to be walking, briefly, through his or her own afterimage.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.