Emily H. of Chilliwack, BC, Canada writes:
Dear Tyler, I would like to be able to walk backwards, but I keep tripping over things or bumping into people. Can you help?
Emily, Emily. Why must you walk backwards? Is it only for the joy of being unconventional? As someone who can’t help being weird, I have to tell you, it’s a lonely road. I was fortunate to meet and marry a weird woman.
Be that as it may. It’s said of certain people that they have eyes in the backs of their heads. Perhaps someone said that about you, and you took it too literally. I’ve never met anyone from this planet of whom it was actually true. Still, if you feel a need to check, use two mirrors — one in front and one in back. Or ask a friend you trust to tell you honestly. Or you might just notice whether you can see things that are behind you; it sounds like maybe you can’t. Perhaps, if you actually do have eyes in back, you just need a haircut. In that case, may I have a photo for my archives? And, if you die before me or for any other reason have no further use for it, may I have your skull? Thanks.
If you’re like most people, your eyes only point frontwards and your neck is perhaps not flexible enough to see straight behind you while walking, unless you are an owl. If so, this would be my first question from an owl or in fact from a bird of any kind, as far as I know.
If you are not so gifted, you still have a couple of options. One is to ask a trusted friend (these people have many uses) to walk forward while you walk backward, clearing people and other obstacles from your path with a large push-broom, and telling you when to step up or aside when there’s an obstacle too large for the broom to handle, such as a curb or a supermarket. It also helps to mount a bicycle bell on your finger, and ring it while you walk, so people will know that you’re coming (this does not help with supermarkets, however). Or, you can use the apparatus shown below.
This simple headband with two mirrors mounted on it, lets you easily see what’s behind you as advance contrariwise. It takes a little getting used to, and many people find it advantageous to block off the space between the mirrors, to avoid the distraction of seeing things in front. With a little practice, you should be able to walk backwards almost as easily as you walk forwards.
Indeed, if you use these enough, your visual cortex may become so accustomed to them that you’ll be unable to understand things you’re seeing straight ahead of you. Scientists have observed similar effects when they made test subjects wear glasses that turned everything upside down. After a time, their brains adapted (the subjects’ brains, not the scientists’), and then everything looked upside-down when they took the glasses off. If something like this happens to you, don’t be alarmed: the effect is temporary. But this experiment just goes to show how extremely cool Science is. It’s a wonder that not everyone becomes a Scientist (but it’s just as well they don’t, because then who would make my lattes?).