I recently had the opportunity to listen to a truly wonderful podcast by Radiolab titled Seeing in the Dark. It offers the perspectives of two individuals who were once sighted, but now find themselves blind.
The first gentleman we meet is John, who has made a conscious effort to “to forget about his vision altogether; he decided to live without pictures at all.” Why?
“I meet a new person, I no longer wonder what they look like. I don’t know what my house looks like. I am honoring the truth and the truth is (that) I cannot really know what my wife looks like. I can put my hand on her face and try to feel my way across, but any images that I conjure up would not be real, it would not have all the details. In effect, it would be a lie, and when it comes to my wife, I cannot bear to lie.”
Zoltan feels that images are essential, so when he lost his sight he took a different approach than John (whose viewpoint he considers ridiculous). He says, “I decided to repopulate the world with images and reconstruct reality for myself.”
Now, when Zoltan walks into a room he says, “I see the furniture correctly in the manner in which you see from the corner of your eye.” He places his hand on the couch, chairs or a table when he enters a room and states with confidence, “I see the furniture correctly, in the manner which you would see it from the corner of your eye.”
According to Radiolab, “He paints pictures of everything that he touches, everything that he hears, even smells in the room to help them visualize the room.
‘The smell of the place will tell me about cleanliness or the use of the place. The echo of the place would give an estimation of windows or open spaces and alcoves. I re-create.”
And Zoltan now says that he is so good at this sort of thing, that he believes what he “sees” in his own mind is actually, and literally, and verifiably in the world.”
The most interesting portion of the podcast features a conversation between John and Zoltan that was arranged by the producers of the show. In this exchange, they have a discussion (initially) about the appearance of Zoltan’s wife, who he had not met prior to his blindness:
Zoltan: Her eyes are brown, slightly flecked with yellow spots and they are large, expressive eyes. I have years and years and years of experience of people’s responses that get all get factored into the construction of a complex image.
John: But you cannot actually, literally, see her. You can only imagine that you can see her. So, why does it matter?
Z: Because emotionally we do not react (and cannot react) properly to things that we cannot visualize. The whole human organism is constructed to react to pictures.
J: You are trying to impose a visual totalitarianism upon the human brain.
Z: No, we are visual creatures.
J: Blind people are not visual creatures.
Z: You said that you lost the visual world. Actually, I just think that you let it go.
J: I did not just let it go. I extinguished it. For the sake of the greater reality.
What is the greater reality?
I don’t know, do you? Does he?