To See And Not To See

Story of a Blind Man Who Could See

The story is by Oliver Sacks and he discusses the story of a blind man whom has been blind for forty-five years before the doctors were able to perform a miraculous surgery on him to allow him to see again. The remarkable part of the story is that the outcome was not the storybook ending where the man can see and everything makes perfect sense to him. (Once I began writing this, I began to remember a movie with a similar theme).

The outcome is that the man is so overcome by the stimulus that he cannot make any sense of the new world that is being inputted into his brain. He cannot connect that the different parts of what he is seeing, and overall each new visual presents something new and distinct. For example, the front of my face is going to be much different from a side view of my face. Without prior context or knowledge of how 3d shapes will change each view will be completely different for the newly seeing person. As an individual having grown up seeing, I have learned how different objects connect and the way the three dimensional world is structured.

It may be easiest to understand from the reverse. All of our life we have grown used to seeing objects and the different queue’s (sounds, expressions, movements) that are incorporated with them. If we were to lose our vision we would be at quite a loss. We need vision to get around in life, because we have built up experiences throughout our lifetime with our vision. For the man that gained his vision, his forty-five years of existence have been without the ability to see and his experiences rely on this missing piece. When this missing piece suddenly becomes available it makes life more difficult because he knows the world without it. As Sacks writes, “he could not synthesize all of the information that is being given to him”.

In the end of the story the man goes blind again, and it is presented as a gift back to the reality that he has always known.

I think the power in the story lies in its ability to point out that apparent normalcy (all five senses) is not the ideal. There is a lot of power in having less than all five senses especially if you have grown with that condition. The brain and body learn to cope with what they are given to great efficiency, and adding stimulus (even if you are giving them a skill most people have) is not always the best for the person with the “disability”.

page created by George Hughes-Strange

Sacks, O. (1995). To See and Not See. An Anthropologist on Mars New York: Vintage.