Thursday, February 03, 2005

Henry Sugar

Esref Armagan, blind from birth, paints uncannily realistic pictures. Holy crap!

It raises big questions not only about how our brains construct mental images, but also about the role those images play in seeing. Do we build up mental images using just our eyes or do other senses contribute too? How much can congenitally blind people really understand about space and the layout of objects within it? How much "seeing" does a blind person actually do?

We normally think of seeing as the taking in of objective reality through our eyes. But is it? How much of what we think of as seeing really comes from without, and how much from within? The visual cortex may have a much more important role than we realise in creating expectations for what we are about to see, says Pascual-Leone. "Seeing is only possible when you know what you're going to see," he says. Perhaps in Armagan the expectation part is operational, but there is simply no data coming in visually.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a person can't have a "mind's eye" without ever having had vision. But Pascual-Leone thinks Armagan must have one. The researcher has long argued that you could arrive at the same mental picture via different senses. In fact he thinks we all do this all the time, integrating all the sensations of an object into our mental picture of it. "When we see a cup," he says, "we're also feeling with our mind's hand. Seeing is as much touching as it is seeing." But because vision is so overwhelming, we are unaware of that, he says. But in Armagan, significantly, that is not the case.

(Link via Collision Detection, where it is pointed out that le bloguemonde has already widely commented on the story.)

I'm reminded of Roald Dahl's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (plot summary). It's the only Dahl story I ever read (sacrilege, I know), but it made a lasting impression on me, reinforced years later by certain aspects of Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and I return to them both often.

My fascination:
That we know so little about how the brain works.
That the yogic tradition holds many secrets (or perhaps in the case of our painter, some more general sort of Eastern mysticism).
That you can see without seeing.
That we have access to something beyond our senses, the extent to which informed by our senses remains a mystery.
That for all our greed and bitterness and cynicism, we are essentially good. (Although there's no evidence in the article of Armagan's use of his ability for a "greater good" — if art is not such a cause in itself — perhaps it is enough that it inspires science to examine his case.)
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