Blindsight

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None so Blind...

daya dissanayake

In 1904 H. G. Wells wrote 'The Country of the Blind". Wells placed his village "300 miles from Chimborazo, 100 from the snows of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador's Andes." For over fifteen generations all the villagers had been blind. A man falls into this hidden valley, a man with all his normal senses intact. He finds houses built in neat rows, cleanest of streets, irrigation channels and lush vegetation. The houses had doors, but no windows and had walls of irregular plastering. The man Nunez, realizes that they are blind and "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". When he says he has sight, that he can see, the blind ask what he means, and they say "his senses are still imperfect". "There is no such word as 'see'." The blind men want to hold his hand and lead him across the village. The home of the elders was pitch dark and Nunez could not see anything. For these people their night was day, when they stayed up and did their work and the day was for rest and sleep. Nunez tried to rebel, to take over the village. But he could not fight the 'blind' men. When they asked him if he thought he could still 'See', he answered, "No, that was folly. The word means nothing-less than nothing".

The complete story can be read free on-line at Gutenberg and other sites.

It all depends on what we mean by vision, what we sense through our eyes. Perhaps the villagers described by Wells had 'Blindsight'. The term introduced by the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz in his book 'Blindsight: A Case Study and Implications'. 'Blindsight' is also a documentary film made about six blind kids who attempt the Everest climb, motivated by Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest in 2001. The film became a hit, but Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, questioned, "What precisely is the blind child's experience of 'climbing Everest' anyway?". To that we can also add the question, would any blind child be able to 'see' this film?

"In people who are blind, the brain reroutes other sensory inputs to unused portions of the brain to compensate for the loss of sight. ...part of the blind visual cortex is being re-wired to support hearing or touch for the localization of objects in space....for the sighted, sound and touch stimulation resulted in reduced visual cortex activation." claims a report of the U.S. National Science Foundation researchers. Yet H. G. Wells apparently was aware of this 108 years ago.

Albert Rosenfeld wrote in the 12th June 1964 issue of 'Life', about Rosa Kuleshova, a young woman in Russia, who could see with her fingers. She could identify colours with her finger-tips, and she was even able to read the business card of Life Correspondent Bob Brigham, not with her eyes, but with her elbow. The Soviet scientists called it 'Dermo-Optical Perception' or DOP., 'skin-vision' in simpler terms. The American experimental psychologist Gregory Razzan too had believed DOP was possible, that people could be trained to see with their skin. The studies are still continuing, as reported by Peter Brugger and Peter H. Weiss in 2008.

In 1877, Michel de Montaigne, in his 2nd Book of Essays, wrote about a man who was blind but refused to admit the fact. "I have seen a gentleman of a good family who was born blind, or at least blind from such an age that he knows not what sight is; who is so little sensible of his defect that he makes use as we do of words proper for seeing, and applies them after a manner wholly particular and his own. They brought him a child to which he was god-father, which, having taken into his arms, "Good God," said he, "what a fine child! How beautiful to look upon! what a pretty face it has!"

Montaigne continues, "The first consideration I have upon the subject of the senses is that I make a doubt whether or not man be furnished with all natural senses. I see several animals who live an entire and perfect life, some without sight, others without hearing; who knows whether to us also one, two, three, or many other senses may not be wanting?"

Anton's syndrome. "Patients with this syndrome behave as if they can see despite their obvious lack of sight", is the explanation given in the Journal of Clinical Neurology. It could be just one more example of the Syndrome Syndrome, where the medical profession tries to find a new syndrome for every symptom of man. Yet the above definition covers a symptom found in most of us, because we do not really see anything of the universe and life around us.

The name is after the neuropathologist Gabriel Anton, for his explanation of visual anosognosia. Patients deny their blindness despite objective evidence of visual loss. It was later named Anton-Babinski Syndrome, after the neurologist Joseph Francois Babinski.

The idea crept into creative fiction in Rupert Thomson's novel 'The Insult', and Peter Watts' 'Blindsight'. The concept appeared in Raj Patel's book on the 2008 Economic crisis, 'The Value of Nothing', and in the film Dogville by Lars von Trier. But long before that it was Plato who wrote about it in the Allegory of the Cave, in his Republic, book VII, where men chained to a bench facing a wall saw the shadows of artificial objects created by a fire behind them. They believed what they saw was reality. That is why Aldous Huxley had said, "Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don't know because we don't want to know".

What is really important is not whether we see with our eyes, or our skin or our ears, but to see and understand things as they really are.

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