The world that only formerly-blind people can see
2013-04-19 0:00

By Esther Inglis-Arkell | io9

They once were blind but now they see. Which begs the question — what exactly do people see when they gain sight for the first time? Often, it’s terrifying.

What happens when people first really look at the world? Generally, we don’t know. They’re far too young to tell us what’s going on in their mind. By the time children are old enough to articulate what they see, they don’t remember what the world looked like in their first few weeks of life. There are special occasions, though, when full-grown adults can see for the first time. For the most part, they see a complete confusion. Often, that does a lot of emotional damage.

One of the earliest-known cases of regained sight is Virgil, the Roman poet. At age fifty, he had cataract surgery and regained his sight. Soon after, he wished he hadn’t. This is common to many blind people who regain their sight. Unlike infants, who are catered to, whose brains are primed for learning, and who have no option but to learn, blind people are asked to replace a familiar sensory system that reliably guides them through the world with an unfamiliar one that does nothing but confuse them. Sometimes the strain of assimilation is too much. Like many other patients, Virgil would shut his eyes and pretend he was still blind when the situation became overwhelming. He became depressed and died of pneumonia soon after his surgery. Although he had seen the world with his eyes, he retained his “mental blindness,” or what experts call “visual agnosia.”

For someone to see an object, the eye needs to pick it up, but the brain also needs to recognize it. This process takes both practice and a certain physical ability in the brain. Agnosia patients have generally suffered brain injuries and lost the ability to understand what they see – they see a rectangular object with a brown circle on top and a loop on one side, but don’t understand that they’re looking at a cup of coffee. There are only shapes. Those who have been blind most of their lives “wake up” with a certain amount of visual agnosia.

Spatial distance is often the primary problem they run into. One man saw people walking away from him as inexplicably shrinking. Another would practice spatial recognition by going out in a field and throwing his boot as far as he could. He’d hold out his hand to grab it, and if it wasn’t in reach, step forward before trying again.

Another area that many newly-sighted people find inexplicable is paintings and other visual representations. They can comprehend real objects, but not painted ones. When they do understand what the paintings are meant to represent, the shadows that are meant to define space and give shape just look like dark marks on the painting. Which, technically they are. It’s only a willful visual laziness on the part of the sighted that lets us see these paint blotches as shadows rather than shapes and colors.

Because we develop familiarity with faces and facial expressions at specific times in our lives – those who are deprived of human contact or changing facial expressions at that age often have trouble reading expressions for their entire lives – formerly blind people are often face-blind, or unable to decipher emotion from facial expression. Some have trouble differentiating between male and female faces.


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