From light to dark

by • May 31, 2014 • Our contribution, Sensory DeficitsComments (0)8083

What would it be like to loose sight? Into Darkness is a dramatization that uses John Hull’s audio-diary, also published in Touching the Rock (Paperback, 2013). Writer and theologian, John Hull lost the last traces of vision in 1983, after years of deteriorating vision. For the next three years, he kept a diary on audio-cassette of his interior world of blindness. John description of blindness as “the borderland between dream and memory” informs the aesthetic approach of the film, and much of the key imagery of the film is rooted in his testimony. Throughout the diaries John recounts vivid “technicolor” dreams, his “last state of visual consciousness,” which he compares to watching films. The water imagery that recurs in the film — visions of surging waves; of being dragged into the depths of the ocean — is derived from John’s account.

The sounds of water also takes a new importance, by offering an auditory landscape and a sense of depth.

Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience…. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn…. I know all these things are there, but I know them from memory…. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another…. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me.

This narration complements the neuroscientific evidence that blind people have a more accurate sense of audition – by showing that they also pay attention to contents that sighted people do often not notice. In the rain case, one can wonder whether the experience of auditory depth and perspective is specific to a blind, or could be entertained by a blindfolded person?

The question makes sense because Hull’s case is quite dramatic: he also lost his own visual images, memories, concepts, etc.. His description is strongly suggestive to me of the development of a cortical blindness. As Oliver Sacks explains , this “owe not to any primary injury of the brain, but to the fact that the visual cortex now has nothing to work with: it cannot manufacture images indefinitely, when there is no longer any stimulus or input from the eyes. There may also be a slow process of degeneration in the cortex, with the cessation of neural input from the eye.”

Interestingly, Hull also reveals that with cortical blindness, there may be a loss not only of visual imagery and visual memory, but of all visual concepts, all visual thinking, of “visual identity.”

When I was about seventeen I lost the sight of my left eye. I can remember gazing at my left shoulder and thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’ll see you without looking in a mirror!” To lose the shoulder is one thing, but to lose one’s own face poses a new problem. I find that I am trying to recall old photographs of myself, just to remember what I look like. I discover with a shock that I cannot remember. Must I become a blank on the wall of my own gallery?

This description again raises important questions for researchers concerned by the role of vision in the definition of the self. In a recently published paper, our collaborators Ana Tajadura-Jimenez, Matthew Longo and Manos Tsakiris report:

Nothing provides so strong a sense of self as seeing one’s own face reflected in a mirror. The familiarity and ease of everyday self-recognition masks the sophistication of this ability, and how rare it is in the animal kingdom. The face is the most distinctive feature of our physical appearance, and one of the key ways by which we become known as individuals, both to ourselves and to others.

If, as they go on to explain, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror and the ability for self-recognition in general is especially fundamental to the awareness of being a self among others like us (Zahavi & Roepstorff, 2011) and perhaps to the diachronic sense of self (Povinelli & Simon, 1998), John Hull’s experience raises important questions as to the possible impact of loosing vision of the sense of self, and shows the need to investigate the degradation as much as the development of self-identity.

 

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