Does That Look Red to You?

Sharing

How do you know if the ‘red’ I see is the same ‘red’ you see?  Does it matter? It wouldn’t matter for people who with similar ‘sensibilities’.[1] This topic would rarely come up, especially between two people with normal color vision.  I don’t believe it would even come up in a conversation between a person with full color vision and a ‘color blind’ person. We could appreciate a beautiful sunset together without saying a word.

Wanting to Share

A person blind from birth learns to negotiate the environment with the senses available. Likewise, a sighted person does the same with visual and other sensory information. How can I, a sighted person, know the world of a blind person? I can appreciate that a blind person would be more sensitive to sounds but it is not good enough to close my eyes and imagine. With my eyes closed, I still have all the image-processing brainpower is dormant but at my disposal again when I open my eyes.

I would to try my experiment anyway and experience what it is like not being able to use my eyes. I close my eyes and accommodate to the sounds. Being in my study, which has a rug, I hear sounds in a muffled way. I hear the refrigerator humming in the adjacent kitchen. My iPod, situated to my right, is louder in my right ear than in my left (I never noticed that before). When I leave my study, sounds bounce back to me. I can now hear my footsteps in the uncarpeted hallway. As I step outside the house, the sounds fall away and I can hear the rustle of the trees and alternately feel warmth and coolness as I walk from sun to shadow. I experience other events as they pass me by: a car, a person walking the dog, and so on. As the sun goes down, I get colder.

Inability to Share

How can I know the quality and meaning of a sound environment perceived by a person blind from birth? To illustrate the difficulty I offer the following story:

I have a friend who is a Good Samaritan. Whenever he sees a blind person, he asks if he could be of assistance. On one occasion he noticed a person walking rapidly in front of him, with a bit of an odd gait. Upon closer examination, he saw that the man had a white cane. My friend caught up with him and asked if he could help. The man seemed to ignore him. When my friend persisted, the man took earphones out of his ears, told my friend he didn’t need any help and began talking about the ballgame to which he was listening. He was unable to explain how he could negotiate the streets while attending to the game playing into his ears.

I would not have been able to do that during my experiment.

Wiring: Some Assembly Required

The brain developmental process is complicated. There is a lot of pre-programmed activity: neural cell growth, migration, and cell death; connections made, connections pruned. The external environment also influences the brain’s development.[2] The brain has the ability to change (plasticity) as demonstrated by the way that the brain map (homunculus) changes with use or disuse of corresponding part of the body.[3][4] “For instance, the repeated use of a fingertip for Braille reading induces an enlargement in the fingertip representation within the homunculus.”[5]  Conversely, if innervation to a part of the body is lost, as Oliver Sacks explains in A Leg to Stand On, [6] the representation of that part of the body diminishes in the brain.

Blindness

The occipital cortex is one location where input from the visual world is normally processed. If no input is received from the normal optic channels during the first years of development, visual input cannot be processed.  Since the brain is such a functionally malleable organ, the processing power of the occipital cortex is available for use by other senses. In fact, according to Michael Gazzaniga, “…the otherwise indolent visual cortex of a blind person can apparently be used to help process information about touch, audition, and even language.”[7]

What Is It Like To Be Someone Else?

In this short essay, I did not wish to delve into the philosophy of the mind-body problem: the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Nor did I wish to puzzle through the rigors of Thomas Nagel’s question about the possibility of knowing what it is like to be a bat [8] in order to answer this question.

People are wired differently and have different ways of interacting with the world. I used vision as an example of neural development that underscores this fact .

Naturally, it is easier to understand another if we have something in common. People on the Autism Spectrum experience the world in a range of different ways than those not on the spectrum. Joshua Muggleton, psychologist says, “When I meet a fellow Aspie, I feel a sense of fraternity with them. This person, unlike the other 99% of people, sees the world in the same way as me. We face the same challenges, we think the same way…”[9]

It would seem that the more one can identify with another’s way of processing the world, the better the chances are of developing a fellowship.

My brother is certainly wired differently. I have struggled to understand, but have been unsuccessful. I hope there is someone in his group home who he recognizes as seeing the world in his way. He deserves a sense of fraternity.


[1] Sensibility: ‘to have the ability to receive sensations’ From Merriam Webster Dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/sensibility

[2] Cohen, D.J. Developmental Psychopathology, Developmental Neuroscience. p 6, Wiley (2006)

[3] Rossini P.M., et al. Short-term brain ‘plasticity’ in humans: transient finger representation changes in sensory cortex somatotopy following ischemic anesthesia Volume 642, Issues 1–2, 11 Brain Research April 1994, Pages 169–177

[4] Duffau, H. Brain plasticity: From pathophysiological mechanisms to therapeutic applications. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience Volume 13, Issue 9, November 2006, Pages 885–897

[5] Cattaneo, Z, Vecchi, T. Blind Vision: The Neuroscience of Visual Impairment, p 175, MIT Press (2011)

[6] Sacks, O. A Leg to Stand On, Simon & Schuster (1998)

[7] Gazzaniga, M.S. The Cognitive Neurosciences, MIT Press (2004) p 1245

[8] Nagel, T. What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974):

435-50.

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