Blind World Magazine

What is it like for the blind to see again?

The Guardian (UK).
Wednesday, May 17, 2006.

Restoring vision to the blind sounds like a miracle - but for the patients in question, it can seem like a nightmare.

What is it like for the blind to see again? You might think it would be a delight, with the previously handicapped person opening their eyes to a wondrous world of colour, depth, movement and faces, and a new and better life. But that (if you are a normal seeing person) is probably because you think of vision as an easy task for the brain - after all, it seems so easy.

This is far from the truth. In fact, vision takes vast brain power and a lot of it is learned, so the newly-sighted have a tough job on. And the few previously documented cases are mostly sad stories of fear, depression, and even suicide.

This week I was lucky enough to be invited, along with a small group of vision scientists, to meet a blind man made to see - this time by the wonders of corneal stem cell transplantation. Mike May, a Californian who became blind at the age of three, had his sight restored in one eye over forty years later. One of the organisers was Richard Gregory, who did classic research in the 1960s with patient, SB.

Our questions ranged from dreams and imagination to how to cope with traffic and sports, but among the most fascinating things we learned was how overwhelming the visual world is for someone who is not used to it, and how much sighted people take for granted their ability to ignore it. For Mike, looking out of his high up hotel window means seeing the teeming cars as full size cars, while knowing that somehow he ought to see them as smaller. He described the difference from his previous world in which he knew the cars were there but was not bombarded with details of colour, shape, number, and direction.

Amazingly, Mike was an expert skier while blind, following a guide who called out instructions. He described to us the joy of seeing mountains (when he could work out that was what he was seeing) and the confusion of skiing with sight. Trees were dark and obviously to be avoided, but shadows were dark too, and hence very scary. It made me reflect on how valuable is our ability not to be distracted by shadows. Indeed he finds skiing and crossing the road more frightening with vision than he used to do without.

He talked about synaesthesia too. While many people see numbers or sounds as having their own colour, for Mike it was Braille letters that were coloured - and, as he put it "people thought I was nuts". Most strange for him are faces which seem to have so much more detail than he had expected from touching them all his life - but whether he sees and recognises them in anything like the way normally sighted people do, we could not tell.

I realised how very difficult it is to ask meaningful questions and understand the answers when you are talking to someone whose experience is so different from your own - and this is, of course, what makes Mike so special. But should I go further? Perhaps I should not be asking what it's like for the blind to see, but what it's like for anyone to see. For scientists are far from agreement over this, and I have agonised about the nature of conscious vision for years.

So look around you now. What is it like to see?

End of article.

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