Learning to See

The very concept of photography by the blind brings up to the surface a fundamental question – What do the Blind see? To answer this question we have to know – How we learn to see?  

Learning to see is universal process. A new born with normal sight can see but cannot make meaning of his seeing, with time he learns to recognize objects – here is a chair, here is a glass and how both are visually different from each other. Seeing is so overwhelming that we who see do not even know how it is that we see, and we are also unaware of the whole process of “leaning to see.” Here is an interesting case –

A man born blind, in adulthood got his sight restored by miracle of medical science. At that point he can ‘see’ but he cannot interpret the visual data at all. A set of stairs which were familiar to him by touch, is now a jumble of lines and shadows, and the jumble utterly changes with the viewing angle and shift of light. He literally could not recognize them as stairs. He learns to see his cat in ‘visual’ profile, but if the cat shifted posture he could no longer differentiate the cat’s shape from that of his room. Unexpectedly, the world of sight becomes a nightmare for him. Eventually he again loses his sight, and it was a relief for him. He returns to a world where everything makes sense by touch and sound. Stairs become stairs and his cat becomes once more a cat.

This blind man turned sighted has never learned to see through his eyes. Similarly when a person loses his sight, in initial phase of blindness he is sucked into so-fearfully-transformed life that it takes time for him to learn to see through his Mind’s eye.    

Keeping aside the emotional and moral effects of blindness in a life, a blind person can “see” by touch and sound, feel the warmth of light, recall of visual memory (if not born blind) and all these helps to creates images in his mind. But a blind person has to work much harder than the sighted person to be aware of the visually realties around him and translate it into mental pictures.

By exploring deeper into the process of learning to see in the blind and sighted, one finds that the geometry of direction is common to vision and touch and where a sighted person looks out, a blind person reaches out, and they will discover the same things. When a sighted person sees a cup, he is also feeling it with his mind’s hand, while when a blind person touches a cup he is also seeing it with his mind’s eye. A cup is both a “visual” cup and a “tactile” cup. Let’s take more complex case, imagine a blind person examining a table.

A few touches reveal that the table is set for four, table is rectangle in shape, and the top is smooth and partly covered by a thin oval table cloth.  On further exploring by touch reveals that the table is neatly arranged with thick round platters between knives and forks, knives are sharp and forks have four tins. Beside each knife is a wineglass, the glasses are full and the surface of the fluid is fuzzy. There are rough rectangular mats with hot covered serving dishes on them. 

 The table and the objects on it are “tactile” as much as “visual”, a blind person by touch can tell the shapes of each object and its likely functions, as a sighted would tell by seeing. While the eye can see the table and objects on it as “all-at-once” while the hand uses a step-by-step approach, builds layers of memory of touch and finally adds them to create a “whole” mental image.

It works similarly for sound – “what you see is what you hear.”  On hearing a loud sound from behind, both sighted and blind would turn around to see in the direction of the sound.

Scientific research  has established that the visual cortex of the brain, which processes all visual inputs in a sighted person, is reallocated in a blind person for processing touch and sound. Photography by the visually impaired shows that learning to see is common for both the sighted and the blind, only the vehicle and route of seeing is different – a photograph can be made successfully in the mind as much as by the eyes.

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