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Cathy Davidson, “Project Classroom Makeover”Oliver Sacks, “The Mind’s Eye”Malcolm Gladwell, “The Power of Context” Like other writers whose work we have read this semester, Malcolm Gladwell presents readers with an idea that seems counterintuitive: he argues that “the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior” (161). Knowing full well how readers might react to such an idea, Gladwell notes that what he calls a “fact” appears to “violate some of our most deeply held assumptions about human nature” (161). For our fifth paper, apply Gladwell’s ideas to “The Mind’s Eye” and Cathy Davidson, “Project Classroom Makeover” we have read to answer this question: How might two other readings we have encountered complicate, contradict, or confirm the “power of context?”Here are some questions to get you thinking. You do not need to answer them in the body of your essay, but brainstorming responses to them–and consulting the text while doing so–should lead to a more sophisticated final product:1. Gladwell calls the Goetz case “a symbol of a particular, dark moment in New York City history” (150). What did the case symbolize in 1984? What does it symbolize to Gladwell?2. Gladwell states that “an epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment” (155). What does he mean by “tinkering” here and where do we see such “tinkering” in other readings?3. What do the people Gladwell examines, such as Berard Goetz, William Bratton, and Philip Zimbardo, have in common? What do they want and how does what Gladwell calls the “Power of Context” affect their pursuits? How are they like or unlike figures from other essays we have read? 4. When discussing Zimbardo’s conclusions, Gladwell notes, “Zimbardo isn’t talking about environment” (158). What are the differences between “context” and “environment?” How do other writers examine this difference?
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A NEUROLOGIST’S NOTEBOOK
THE MIND’S EYE
What the blind see.
BY OLIVER SACKS
In his last letter, Goethe wrote, “The Ancients
said that the animals are taught through their
organs; let me add to this, so are men, but they
have the advantage of teaching their organs in
return.” He wrote this in 1832, a time when
phrenology was at its height, and the brain was
seen as a mosaic of “little organs” subserving
everything from language to drawing ability to
shyness. Each individual, it was believed, was
given a fixed measure of this faculty or that, according to the luck of his birth. Though we no
longer pay attention, as the phrenologists did, to
the “bumps” on the head (each of which, supposedly, indicated a brain-mind organ beneath), neurology and neuroscience have stayed close to the
idea of brain fixity and localization—the notion,
in particular, that the highest part of the brain,
the cerebral cortex, is effectively programmed
from birth: this part to vision and visual processing, that part to hearing, that to touch, and so
on.
This would seem to allow individuals little
power of choice, of self-determination, let alone
of adaptation, in the event of a neurological or
perceptual mishap.
But to what extent are we—our experiences,
our reactions—shaped, predetermined, by our
brains, and to what extent do we shape our own
brains? Does the mind run the brain or the brain
the mind—or, rather, to what extent does one run
the other? To what extent are we the authors, the
creators, of our own experiences? The effects of
a profound perceptual deprivation such as blindness can cast an unexpected light on this. To
become blind, especially later in life, presents
one with a huge, potentially overwhelming challenge: to find a new way of living, of ordering
one’s world, when the old way has been destroyed.
A dozen years ago, I was sent an extraordinary
book called “Touching the Rock An Experience
of Blindness.” The author, John Hull, was a professor of religious education who had grown up
in Australia and then moved to England. Hull
had developed cataracts at the age of thirteen,
and became completely blind in his left eye four
years later. Vision in his right eye remained reasonable until he was thirty-five or so, and then
started to deteriorate. There followed a decade of
steadily failing vision, in which Hull needed
stronger and stronger magnifying glasses, and
had to write with thicker and thicker pens, until,
in 1983, at the age of forty-eight, he became
completely blind.
“Touching the Rock” is the journal he dictated
in the three years that followed. It is full of
piercing insights relating to Hull’s life as a blind
person, but most striking for me is Hull’s description of how, in the years after his loss of
sight, he experienced a gradual attenuation of
visual imagery and memory, and finally a virtual
extinction of them (except in dreams)—a state
that he calls “deep blindness.”
By this, Hull meant not only the loss of visual
images and memories but a loss of the very idea
of seeing, so that concepts like “here,” “there,”
and “facing” seemed to lose meaning for him,
and even the sense of objects having “appearances,” visible characteristics, vanished. At this
point, for example, he could no longer imagine
how the numeral 3 looked, unless he traced it in
the air with his hand. He could construct a “motor” image of a 3, but not a visual one.
Hull, though at first greatly distressed about the
fading of visual memories and images—the fact
that he could no longer conjure up the faces of
his wife or children, or of familiar and loved
landscapes and places—then came to accept it
with remarkable equanimity; indeed, to regard it
as a natural response to a nonvisual world. He
seemed to regard this loss of visual imagery as a
prerequisite for the full development, the height-
ening, of his other senses.
Two years after becoming completely blind,
Hull had apparently become so nonvisual as to
resemble someone who had been blind from
birth. Hull’s loss of visuality also reminded me
of the sort of “cortical blindness” that can happen
if the primary visual cortex is damaged, through
a stroke or traumatic brain damage—although in
Hull’s case there was no direct damage to the
visual cortex but, rather, a cutting off from any
visual stimulation or input.
In a profoundly religious way, and in language
sometimes reminiscent of that of St. John of the
Cross, Hull enters into this state, surrenders himself, with a sort of acquiescence and joy. And
such “deep” blindness he conceives as “an
authentic and autonomous world, a place of its
own. . . . Being a whole-body seer is to be in one
of the concentrated human conditions.”
Being a “whole-body seer,” for Hull, means
shifting his attention, his center of gravity, to the
other senses, and he writes again and again of
how these have assumed a new richness and
power. Thus he speaks of how the sound of rain,
never before accorded much attention, can now
delineate a whole landscape for him, for its
sound on the garden path is different from its
sound as it drums on the lawn, or on the bushes
in his garden, or on the fence dividing it from the
road. “Rain,” he writes, “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 . . . presents the fullness
of an entire situation all at once . . . gives a sense
of perspective and of the actual relationships of
one part of the world to another.”
With his new intensity of auditory experience
(or attention), along with the sharpening of his
other senses, Hull comes to feel a sense of intimacy with nature, an intensity of being-in-theworld, beyond anything he knew when he was
sighted. Blindness now becomes for him “a dark,
paradoxical gift.” This is not just “compensation,” he emphasizes, but a whole new order, a
new mode of human being. With this he extricates himself from visual nostalgia, from the
strain, or falsity, of trying to pass as “normal,”
and finds a new focus, a new freedom. His
teaching at the university expands, becomes
more fluent, his writing becomes stronger and
deeper; he becomes intellectually and spiritually
bolder, more confident. He feels he is on solid
ground at last.
What Hull described seemed to mean astounding example of how an individual deprived
of one form of perception could totally reshape
himself to anew center, a new identity.
It is said that those who see normally as infants but then become blind within the first two
years of life retain no memories of seeing, have
no visual imagery and no visual elements in their
dreams (and, in this way, are comparable to
those born blind). It is similar with those who
lose hearing before the age of two: they have no
sense of having “lost” the world of sound, nor
any sense of “silence,” as hearing people sometimes imagine. For those who lose sight so early,
the very concepts of “sight” or “blindness” soon
cease to have meaning, and there is no sense of
losing the world of vision, only of living fully in
a world constructed by the other senses.
But it seemed extraordinary to me that such an
annihilation of visual memory as Hull describes
could happen equally to an adult, with decades,
an entire lifetime, of rich and richly categorized
visual experience to call upon. And yet I could
not doubt the authenticity of Hull’s account,
which he relates with the most scrupulous care
and lucidity.
Important studies of adaptation in the brain were
begun in the nineteen seventies by, among others, Helen Neville, a cognitive neuroscientist
now working in Oregon. She showed that in
prelingually deaf people (that is, those who had
been born deaf or become deaf before the age of
two or so) the auditory parts of the brain had not
degenerated or atrophied. These had remained
active and functional, but with an activity and a
function that were new: they had been transformed, “reallocated,” in Neville’s term, for
processing visual language. Comparable studies
in those born blind, or early blinded, show that
the visual areas of the cortex, similarly, may be
reallocated in function, and used to process
sound and touch.
With the reallocation of the visual cortex to
touch and other senses, these can take on a hyperacuity that perhaps no sighted person can
imagine. Bernard Morin, the blind mathematician who in the nineteen-sixties had shown how
a sphere could be turned inside out, felt that his
achievement required a special sort of spatial
perception and imagination. And a similar sort of
spatial giftedness has been central to the work of
Geerat Vermeij, a blind biologist who has been
able to delineate many new species of mollusk,
based on tiny variations in the shapes and contours of their shells.
Faced with such findings and reports, neurologists began to concede that there might be a certain flexibility or plasticity in the brain, at least
in the early years of life. But when this critical
period was over, it was assumed, the brain became inflexible, and no further changes of a
radical type could occur. The experiences that
Hull so carefully recounts give the lie to this. It is
clear that his perceptions, his brain, did finally
change, in a fundamental way. Indeed, Alvaro
Pascual-Leone and his colleagues in Boston have
recently shown that, even in adult sighted volunteers, as little as five days of being blindfolded
produces marked shifts to nonvisual forms of
behavior and cognition, and they have demonstrated the physiological changes in the brain that
go along with this. And only last month, Italian
researchers published a study showing that
sighted volunteers kept in the dark for as little as
ninety minutes may show a striking enhancement
of tactile-spatial sensitivity.
The brain, clearly, is capable of changing even
in adulthood, and I assumed that Hulls experience was typical of acquired blindness—the response, sooner or later, of everyone who
becomes blind, even in adult life.
So when I came to publish an essay on Hull’s
book, in 1991, I was taken aback to receive a
number of letters from blind people, letters that
were often somewhat puzzled, and occasionally
indignant, in tone. Many of my correspondents,
it seemed, could not identify with Hull’s experience, and said that they themselves, even decades after losing their sight, had never lost their
visual images or memories. One correspondent,
who had lost her sight at fifteen, wrote, “Even
though I am totally blind . . . I consider myself a
very visual person. I still ‘see’ objects in front of
me. As I am typing now I can see my hands on
the keyboard. . . . I don’t feel comfortable in a
new environment until I have a mental picture of
its appearance. I need a mental map for my independent moving, too.”
Had I been wrong, or at least onesided, in accepting Hull’s experience as a typical response to
blindness? Had I been guilty of emphasizing one
mode of response too strongly, oblivious to the
possibilities of radically different responses?
This feeling came to a head in 1996, when I received a letter from an Australian psychologist
named Zoltan Torey. Torey wrote to me not
about blindness but about a book he had written
on the brain-mind problem and the nature of
consciousness. (The book was published by Oxford University Press as “The Crucible of Consciousness,” in 1999.) In his letter Torey also
spoke of how he had been blinded in an accident
at the age of twenty-one, while working at a
chemical factory, and how, although “advised to
switch from a visual to an auditory mode of adjustment,” he had moved in the opposite direction, and resolved to develop instead his “inner
eye,” his powers of visual imagery, to their
greatest possible extent.
In this, it seemed, he had been extremely successful, developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his
mind, so much so that he had been able to construct an imagined visual world that seemed almost as real and intense to him as the perceptual
one he had lost—and, indeed, sometimes more
real, more intense, a sort of controlled dream or
hallucination. This imagery, moreover, enabled
him to do things that might have seemed scarcely
possible for a blind man. “I replaced the entire
roof guttering of my multi-gabled home singlehanded,” he wrote, “and solely on the strength of
the accurate and well-focused manipulation of
my now totally pliable and responsive mental
space.” (Torey later expanded on this episode,
mentioning the great alarm of his neighbors at
seeing a blind man, alone, on the roof of his
house—and, even more terrifying to them, at
night, in pitch darkness.)
And it enabled him to think in ways that had
not been available to him before, to envisage
solutions, models, designs, to project himself to
the inside of machines and other systems, and,
finally, to grasp by visual thought and simulation
(complemented by all the data of neuroscience)
the complexities of that ultimate system, the human brain-mind.
When I wrote back to Torey, I suggested that
he consider writing another book, a more personal one, exploring how his life had been affected by blindness, and how he had responded
to this, in the most improbable and seemingly
paradoxical of ways. “Out of Darkness” is the
memoir he has now written, and in it Torey describes his early memories with great visual intensity and humor. Scenes are remembered or
reconstructed in brief, poetic glimpses of his
childhood and youth in Hungary before the Second World War: the sky-blue buses of Budapest,
the egg-yellow trams, the lighting of gas lamps,
the funicular on the Buda side. He describes a
carefree and privileged youth, roaming with his
father in the wooded mountains above the Danube, playing games and pranks at school,
growing up in a highly intellectual environment
of writers, actors, professionals of every sort.
Torey’s father was the head of a large motionpicture studio and would often give his son
scripts to read. “This,” Torey writes, “gave me
the opportunity to visualize stories, plots and
characters, to work my imagination—a skill that
was to become a lifeline and source of strength
in the years ahead.”
All of this came to a brutal end with the Nazi
occupation, the siege of Buda, and then the Soviet occupation. Torey, now an adolescent, found
himself passionately drawn to the big questions—the mystery of the universe, of life, and
above all the mystery of consciousness, of the
mind. In 1948, nineteen years old, and feeling
that he needed to immerse himself in biology,
engineering, neuroscience, and psychology, but
knowing that there was no chance of study, of an
intellectual life, in Soviet Hungary, Torey made
his escape and eventually found his way to Australia, where, penniless and without connections,
he did various manual jobs. In June of 1951,
loosening the plug in a vat of acid at the chemical factory where he worked, he had the accident
that bisected his life.
“The last thing I saw with complete clarity
was a glint of light in the flood of acid that was
to engulf my face and change my life. It was a
nano-second of sparkle, framed by the black circle of the drumface, less than a foot away. This
as the final scene, the slender thread that ties me
to my visual past.”
When it became clear that his corneas had
been hopelessly damaged and that he would have
to live his life as a blind man, he was advised to
rebuild his representation of the world on the
basis of hearing and touch and to “forget about
sight and visualizing altogether. “But this was
something that Torey could not or would not do.
He had emphasized, in his first letter to me, the
importance of a most critical choice at this juncture: “I immediately resolved to find out how far
a partially sense-deprived brain could go to rebuild a life.” Put this way, it sounds abstract, like
an experiment. But in his book one senses the
tremendous feelings underlying his resolution—the horror of darkness, “the empty darkness,” as Torey often calls it, “the grey fog that
was engulfing me,” and the passionate desire to
hold on to light and sight, to maintain, if only in
memory and imagination, a vivid and living visual world. The very tide of his book says all this,
and the note of defiance is sounded from the
start. Hull, who did not use his potential for imagery in a deliberate way, lost it in two or three
years, and became unable to remember which
way round a 3 went; Torey, on the other hand,
soon became able to multiply four-figure numbers by each other, as on a blackboard, visualizing the whole operation in his mind, “painting”
the suboperations in different colors.
Well aware that the imagination (or the brain),
unrestrained by the usual perceptual input, may
run away with itself in a wildly associative or
self-serving way—as may happen in deliria,
hallucinations, or dreams—Torey maintained a
cautious and “scientific” attitude to his own visual imagery, taking pains to check the accuracy
of his images by every means available. “I
learned,” he writes, “to hold the image in a tentative way, conferring credibility and status on it
only when some information would tip the balance in its favor.” Indeed, he soon gained enough
confidence in the reliability of his visual imagery
to stake his life upon it, as when he undertook
roof repairs by himself. And this confidence extended to other, purely mental projects. He became able “to imagine, to visualize, for example,
the inside of a differential gearbox in action as if
from inside its casing. “I was able to watch the
cogs bite, lock and revolve, distributing the spin
as required. I began to play around with this internal view in connection with mechanical and
technical problems, visualizing how subcomponents relate in the atom, or in the living cell.”
This power of imagery was crucial, Torey
thought, in enabling him to arrive at a solution of
the brain-mind problem by visualizing the brain
“as a perpetual juggling act of interacting routines.”
In a famous study of creativity, the French
mathematician Jacques Hadamard asked many
scientists and mathematicians, including Einstein, about their thought processes. Einstein
replied, “The physical entities which seem to
serve as elements in thought are . . . more or less
clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. [Some are] of visual and
some of muscular type. Conventional words or
other signs have to be sought for laboriously
only in a secondary stage.” Torey cites this, and
adds, “Nor was Einstein unique in this respect.
Hadamard found that almost all scientists work
this way, and this was also the way my project
evolved.”
Soon after receiving Torey’s manuscript, I received the proofs of yet another memoir by a
blind person: Sabriye Tenberken’s “My Path
Leads to Tibet.” While Hull and Torey are thinkers, preoccupied in their different ways by inwardness, states of brain and mind, Tenberken is
a doer; she has travelled, often alone, all over
Tibet, where for centuries blind people have
been treated as less than human and denied education, work, respect, or a role in the community.
Virtually single-handed, Tenberken has transformed their situation over the past half-dozen
years, devising a form of Tibetan Braille, establishing schools for the blind, and integrating the
graduates of these schools into their communities.
Tenberken herself had impaired vision almost
from birth but was able to make out faces and
landscapes until she was twelve. As a child in
Germany, she had a particular predilection for
colors, and loved painting, and when she was no
longer able to decipher shapes and forms she
could still use colors to identify objects. Tenberken has, indeed, an intense synesthesia. “As
far back as I can remember,” she writes, “numbers and words have instantly triggered colors in
me. . . . The number 4, for example …
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