In my project about mapping intimate spaces, I focused on the somewhat unbelievable realization that I had never truly seen my own back. To the astonishment of my Professor, I have not seen all there is to my body, the biggest example being literally half of me. My instant reaction was to study it in as many ways as possible; my first iteration ended up being a conversion of what I could feel of my back, and transferring that into a drawing representation. The first instinct I had was to convert a different sense into my main primary sense, sight. Sight is how I, and I imagine most people, mainly experience the world around us; my first instinct is always to look for or at something, before I even consider listening to it, or touching it. Even more so, I could touch my back and hear it crack, so why was it so important that I had never seen it? I’ve never tasted my back either, nor smelt it due to my anosmia, yet neither of these bothered me as much as not ever fully seeing my back. This got me started thinking, were there any cases where blind people could see? And how would they react to experiencing the world in a new way. How could anyone who’d never learned how to process all of this imagery; could they readjust, and begin functioning in an all new way? Could someone be reconditioned to the same world in an extremely different way? It turns out that there was at least one, a patient known as S.B.
Born in 1906, S.B. Went blind at ten months old; born into a poor family of seven, he then attended Birmingham Blind School in 1915. At age 52 he received a corneal graft, which he could receive due to not being fully blind, but instead partially sighted. This classification came from the fact that he could still remember visual memories from before he went blind. According to S.B., his only visual memories were the three colors, red, white, and black. When visited by the researchers forty-eight days after his operation, they described his behavior as almost a normal sighted person, aside from a few quirks. Unlike someone who had grown up sighted, S.B.’s first instinct was not to look at things; he would not survey any room s he entered, and only seemed to respond to visual objects when his attention was called directly to them. He disliked not knowing common things sighted people knew already, and was extremely adverse to surprises. S.B. could only recognize uppercase letters, and was fond of bright colors, and later complained if colors were “dingy”. His first sight was the surgeon’s face after removing his bandages, which he described as a blur. His only way of knowing that this blur was a face was due to previous knowledge that voices come from faces. S.B. would not look at peoples faces as they spoke to him, nor would he pick up on facial expressions.
S.B. was then subjected to several optical illusions, of which he had differing reactions. Rorschach tests seemed lost on him; he could only see them as designs or blobs, he couldn’t make shapes out of them. By being shown landscapes, S.B. could only identify masses of colors, and had difficulty recognizing water. In the Ishihara color blind test, S.B. had no issue making out the numbers hidden within the blobs of color; he also did not move his hands at all, as he had done while reading previously. The same day as the visual tests, S.B. was asked to draw for the first time, which he enjoyed and was very concentrated. His first drawing, a cobbler’s hammer, was drawn completely from previous sensory memory because he had never seen one. S.B. seemed disappointed in his own inadequacy to draw a face, and relinquished his work with a sigh.
After being discharged from the hospital, S.B. seemed very dispassionate about seeing and experiencing new things; he couldn’t remember much of a car ride to London, and seemed disinterested in seeing the London sights. The only things S.B. seemed interested in were mirrors and moving objects, such as pigeons. S.B. was also afraid of traffic, and refused to cross streets alone. When taken to the Science museum, S.B. could not see a lathe, until he was allowed to feel the machine with his hands, eyes closed. He turned and said, “Now that I’ve felt it, I can see.” When taken to a zoo, S.B. seemed surprised that tigers were striped, and laughed at giraffes. He was allowed to throw cabbages for the hippos to eat, and his aim was described as good. He said he was unable to recognize people by their faces, and instead had to associate people with their clothing.
Sixth months after his operation, S.B. was rather depressed; he described the world as “drab”, his neighbors thought him bizarre, and workmates made fun of his inability to read. He , at this point, seemed to rely more on his sight, which the researchers theorized came at the cost of his self respect, that everything he was previously proud of seemed small in his new predicament. Later on, S.B. became even more melancholy, and then came down with several illnesses, and became too ill to travel and meet the researchers. They were struck by the sad turnaround from a confident and assured handicapped man, to a dispirited, and melancholic seeing man. S.B. died on August second, nineteen-sixty.
To be confronted with an entire world, the same world that you had once experienced, only in a completely new way, would anyone emerge from this process alright? Is it almost like being a new person? Having to relearn all of what you thought you had known, how could that not make someone depressed? In the case of S.B., it almost seemed like the world couldn’t live up to whatever his expectations could be; he seemed constantly disappointed in everything he saw, like he had different imaginings in his mind already, and the actual sights were less interesting. I wonder too, if I were to fully experience my back, would I then become disinterested in it? Most people I know do not care much for their backs, at least, no more than any other part of their own body. I’ve only just now fell in love with my own back, I couldn’t imagine having that ripped away from me. But isn’t that ultimately my goal? To fully experience my back?
By achieving my goal, will I also lose the spark of this new realization? Undoubtedly so; as with anything else, once experienced it loses it’s mystery and zest, as the world did for S.B.. Yet some would say that you cannot truly love something until you have stripped it of all of it’s mystery; until you know it front to…well… back.
Recovery from Early Blindness; a Case Study, R.L Gregory, Jean G. Wallace, Heffer, 1963: http://www.richardgregory.org/papers/recovery_blind/recovery-from-early-blindness.pdf