I recently had the good fortune to read a book documenting a series of unrepeatable observations, the blind receiving sight for the first time. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the miracle of cataract surgery was perfected. An author with good instincts, Marius von Senden, sensed the opportunity to observe adults experience the transition from a tactile perception of the world to a visual perception. The results are recorded in his astonishing book, Space and Sight.
Many of us have never taken time to imagine the world without sight. If we did ponder the idea for a moment though, some startling realizations would be made. Von Senden concluded that our entire construction of reality is different, and making the mental connections and corrections to move from a tactile consciousness to a visual consciousness requires tremendous effort and time. Basic concepts such as space, shape, color, and motion are baffling to the newly sighted. Before I go on though, I’d like to emphasize that we are talking solely about those who have been blind from birth. Those who once had sight and lost it had a chance to develop the basic concepts of space, even if they only had sight for a few years.
One of the major concepts perceived very differently by the blind is distance. We perceive most things we can see as being nearby. A blind person however, having never visually seen the distance from one point in space to another, “views” distance in terms of steps and time. That means if taking a bus across town to the movies takes less time and effort than taking a walk to the grocery store a couple of blocks away, the blind person perceives the movies as being closer. They have no real sensation of covering distance. In fact, they have no idea what a change in position—or movement—even means. For them, moving simply means exerting a force with their legs or feeling the vibration of a train and ending up somewhere else. They don’t have a concept of space.
One will find that it is very easy to be fooled into thinking that the blind have a good idea of what the reality we live in is really like. This is largely due to the fact that they acquire their vocabulary from their sighted teachers. Von Senden puts it like this: “The visual world being closed to him, he is compelled by his circumstances to invest many words drawn from the tactual sphere, so that the blind man finds no means of expressing many of the finer shades of his tactual experience within the vocabulary provided for him; he therefore has to rely, for better or worse, on words which in turn evoke impressions in the sighted that are by no means associated with these words in the blind man’s experience and are not so intended when he uses them.”
A perfect example of this involves the case of an eight-year old boy who had been given sight for the first time. When he was shown a hand in motion, moving in front of his face, he was asked if he could see it moving. The problem was he had no clue what he was being asked. He took it to mean only that motion was an interlude of light and dark. He did not follow the hand. It wasn’t until he grasped the hand that he was able to cry out, “It’s moving!” Von Senden describes the case: “It is not as if the child, having learnt that what he sees represents an object in motion, says to himself, as it were: the thing is now changing its position, I ought to follow it with my eyes, but I can’t do so; the fact is that it simply does not occur to him that ‘movement’ involves a change of direction of the perceiving organ; and this because even tactual movement has never been given to him in terms of a change of direction in space.” Upon receiving sight for the first time, the newly sighted have a difficult time adjusting to a world where none of the rules they thought they knew apply.
Our spatial awareness extends as far as our eyes can see. A blind person’s idea of spatial awareness extends to the tips of their fingers. As such, upon first being able to see, some patients think everything they can see they should be able to touch. Von Senden describes a patient who had learned to find his way around the large village he lived in, yet never took the time to understand spatial lengths. He says of him, “Only those things with which he had actually been in contact had ever been real to him; he had never acquired the notion of spatial distance and hence even his visual investigations were conducted under the impression that everything he perceived was in immediate contact with his body.” Another case involved a boy who, to move towards a light, would turn his head left and right to determine where the light was brightest, then stick his hands out and walk, occasionally turning his head to make sure he was still moving towards the brightest spot in his vision. He does not immediately know how far away the light is from him. These are both people who had their cataracts removed and can now see clearly. A blind man Von Senden cites spoke of how he thought seeing works; he described it as a sense which uses the air in the same way he uses a stick. While he’s not far off, he thinks of sight as tactile perception extended by air, not knowing it’s an entirely different thing altogether. Examine this quote by a twelve year old girl coming to terms for the first time with the fact that most people have another sense that she does not have:
I admitted to myself that there was in fact a highly important difference of organization between myself and other people; whereas I could make contact with them by touch and hearing, they were bound to me through an unknown sense, which entirely surrounded me even from a distance, followed me about, penetrated through me and somehow held me in its power from morning to night. What a strange power this was, to which I was subjected against my will, without, for my part, being able to exercise it over anyone at all.
Size is another thing the newly sighted struggle with. As people who can see, we have learned that things that are farther away appear smaller. The blind have never learned this. Their notion of size is given by how much of their fingers can fit around an object, or if the object can be held in one hand. After surgery, totally new rules apply. A sixteen-year old girl patient, when asked how big her mother was, “did not stretch out her hands, but set her two index-fingers a few inches apart.” She did not see this as unreasonable at all. After all, this is what her eyes were telling her. Another case involves a man who claimed to know exactly what a horse looked like, but then took a large dark ten-litre bottle for a horse at a distance of one foot (shapes are also a very difficult concept for the newly sighted, which I’m getting to). Things that actually are big are hard to comprehend too. Another patient thought her eyes were playing tricks on her when she saw a tree for the first time. She had been told trees grew to great heights, but descriptions of anything taller than a blind person can reach with a stick mean nothing to them. In fact, another patient said one of the most important pieces of information she had related to her still blind friend was that trees don’t look a thing like human beings. Initially, this might seem an obvious fact, but because they both have trunks, limbs, things at the ends of their limbs (leaves or hands), and the blind have no way of knowing how tall trees are, they assume they look very similar. They have a common schema, so they group them in the same category of shape.
Speaking of shape, blind people can only guess what sighted people are talking about when they discuss shapes. They may be able, over time, to feel the difference between circles and squares. This tactual knowledge does not translate when one gains sight though. One might at first expect that it does; are they not creating mental images of circles and squares when they are feeling them? That’s when it must be remembered that the word, ‘images,’ means something only to the sighted. The blind cannot see a circle or square in their mind any more than they can see one in real life. If one could see, and then turned blind, they could probably visualize circles and squares when feeling them as a result of pairing the two senses before blindness when handling an object. Being blind from birth is different though.
There are so many astonishing examples of an inability to recognize anything after being given sight for the first time that I’m going to have trouble picking just a few. There was one girl who was shown a knife, feather, glass, book, etc. (objects she had no trouble identifying by touch). When asked to name the objects presented to her, she said she could see the objects clearly, but as to which was which she didn’t have a clue. Another patient was asked to write some letters on a chalkboard. She did so, but without making use of her eyes, writing as she was used to when she was blind. Later, the doctor pointed to some of the letters, to she if she could recognize them. She could not recognize a single one, though she had written very legibly and could see quite clearly. One patient, seeing for the first time, was shown the doctor’s hand. When asked to name what he saw, he couldn’t. Then, the doctor lifted the patient’s own hand and the patient excitedly exclaimed, “It’s a hand!” The newly sighted being fascinated with their hands was a common theme. Another patient was shown her cat, but until it rubbed against her she was clueless about what it was she was looking at. While trying to learn shapes, a patient mistook an apple for a key and a loaf of bread for a hand.
After being given sight, these patients have to begin a process that everybody else went through as babies. They move from a predominant reliance on touch to a reliance on sight. For the newly sighted, it’s a world of struggle. A strong-willed twenty-year-old patient usually required four intensive weeks of training to learn to distinguish between round, square, and triangular shapes. Imagine the task of learning to recognize one face. A newly sighted husband needed four months of practice to distinguish his wife’s face from anyone else’s. Perspective is another difficulty altogether. One patient, observing something interesting on the street below, stepped off the balcony of a tall apartment building and was killed. The world could be a terrifying place. Smoke from chimneys looked like the sky was cracking apart, a dark coat on the floor looked like the mouth of a well. One woman found herself distraught saying, “How is it that I find myself less happy than before? Everything that I see causes me disagreeable emotion. Oh, I was much more at ease in my blindness.” Eventually, to her pleasure, she went blind again. Nearly every single patient went through a period of despair.
These cases are not unlike cases I see every day as a teacher. We all grow up in blindness. Everything we originally learn about the world comes from what other people tell us, just as in the case of the blind. The reason we all have such different worldviews is that we all grow up listening to different people. There comes a time when our worldviews will clash with another person’s. There will be no doubt in our minds that we are right, and they are wrong. If only they could see the world as plainly as we do. The problem here is not that they are having problems seeing. It is that the reality we see is different from the reality they see. We have both grown up blind, and we have each been told a separate version of reality by the people we think can see. How then, do we determine what Truth is?
The answer, obviously, is learning to see. What does it mean to see though? This is where education enters the conversation. We have to be careful though. For many, education means listening to a teacher and stocking away everything they say. This is no different than the process I was just describing though, which could lead many to clashing realities, which could lead many to war. Learning facts or procedures is not what I’m talking about when I discuss education. Learning to perform surgery or the process for solving differential equations is not what it takes to be “smart.” Seeing reality better than before is how I’m choosing to define education. This takes one thing: rational thought.
Rational thought is very difficult to teach. Every good teacher, whether they realize it or not, is attempting to teach it, maybe through essay writing or performing experiments. There is even one class entirely devoted to it. That is mathematics. This isn’t well known until college, and even then it may not become realized unless you are a math major. That’s because thinking is hard. I’m not saying math is the only place thinking is done. What I am saying is this: Learning to think is essentially the same thing as learning how to see when you’ve been blind your whole life.
Math is not the only place rational thought can be compared to learning how to see (it’s easiest because most people can relate to the struggles). If anyone has read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” this is essentially the same thing. Most people prefer their comfort in the cave. The light hurts. Let’s look at Christian theology. Jesus tells us that to serve others is to achieve the ultimate goal in life. Nobody in their right mind is born feeling that this is true. What would it take to come to this conclusion? Rational thought. In fact, let’s look at John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “Word,” is translated from the Greek, “logos.” Logos is where we get our word, “logic,” or in other words, rational thought. I’m not saying that rational thought should be our god. I’m saying that God knows no thoughts but Truth. He is Truth.
In the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Plato lays down exactly what he thinks would happen to a man who lived a perfectly just life, that is, a life with no wrongdoing. According to him, the man would live a life of persecution, he would be stripped of everything, made to suffer, and crucified. While that doesn’t sound pretty, Plato goes on to argue how a just life is the only one that could bring happiness. A few hundred years later, a man claiming to be the Son of God (i.e. perfect) visited Earth. He was stripped of everything, made to suffer, and crucified. His message was not one of despair though. It was one of unparalleled joy. Plato was not a prophet. He was a thinker.
A just life does not sound pretty. Serving others, turning the other cheek, forgiving those who trespass against us, all sound about as pleasant as a college degree in pure math. Making sense of the world using the sense of thought is about as difficult as making sense of the world through sight for the first time as an adult. At first, they cannot distinguish objects at all. Within a few weeks, they begin to learn colors and basic shapes. It takes months of hard work, practice, and puzzlement before they begin to understand depth and perception (after six months, when a patient was being shown pictures, he couldn’t understand why a man standing in the foreground was taller than the building in the background). Reality to them is confusing when they use their eyes, and many of them started going through life with their eyes closed again. There were a few who stuck it out though. Imagine the beauty and richness of the life they were rewarded with! It was said of one of the patients after four months, “A tree, an animal, a flower, are all so many occasions for often astonishing and original reflections, and now the joy of living appears a little in his eyes.”