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Seeing is not always believing.
June 17, 2006 1:59 AM   Subscribe

'Twas blind, but now I see? — Virgil surgically regained his sight after nearly 50 years of blindness: "On the day he returned home after the bandages were removed, his house and its contents were unintelligible to him, and he had to be led up the garden path, led through the house, led into each room, and introduced to each chair." In the end, he and others like him [PDF] would have rather stayed in the Country of the Blind. (A happier ending was the more recent case of Mike Mays, previously posted here.)
posted by cenoxo (19 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, what an amazing, bittersweet story on an angle that I'd never even thought to consider about that which I take (pretty much) for granted. Thanks, cenoxo.
posted by Zack_Replica at 3:05 AM on June 17, 2006


Nice story.

The fact that cortical vision processing needs to develop in young age and if deprived of vision at that age, one will never properly regain it, seems to be a known one.

In this case, the man had had some eyesight in his early childhood, but another factor which definitely plays some role is his apparent inability to cope with changes.

I wonder what it would be like, though, to regain hearing after having been deaf for most of one's life, because while you can shut your eyes, you cannot well shut the ears. Anybody know of any such cases?
posted by Laotic at 3:14 AM on June 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


...strike that 'inability to cope with changes'. The guy tries hard enough, the brain is not just as plastic as it was in childhood. Fascinating how much trouble goes into image recognition.
posted by Laotic at 3:49 AM on June 17, 2006


Interesting stuff thx.

Only cochlear implants in young children Laotic. Quite amazing to watch them react to this brand knew sensory stimulus, and even tho the first implants were crazily crude, just a few bits, the children developed regional accents! There are some audio examples of these implants here when you consider that accents developed from the lowest quality of these the power of an enforcing loop becomes clear. Retinal implants are much rarer, experimental even, and only work with a trained mind, and intact optic nerve. Perhaps we shall see visual cortex transplants in the future for those that have never seen? Creepy?
posted by econous at 4:05 AM on June 17, 2006


I bet his fiancee told him she was a supermodel
posted by D J Robertstein at 4:20 AM on June 17, 2006


That was a great read. I was expecting a very sad ending as his health went downhill, but it ended on more of an upbeat note.

Aside: What is it with The New Yorker and the spelling of reëxamine and reëxpand? Is that some kind of stylistic thing to which I'm just not privy, or is it just like spelling cooperate with an umlaut?
posted by Rhomboid at 4:50 AM on June 17, 2006


Rhomboid, they're just diaereses; slightly quaint, but correct.
posted by scruss at 5:16 AM on June 17, 2006


That Country of the Blind Story was well worth the read, thanks.
posted by diocletian at 6:40 AM on June 17, 2006


Visible speech plays a crucial role in face-to-face communication, particularly among children. "Baldi"*—and his commercial progeny "Timo"—are computerized 3D talking heads used as visual speech tutors:
While the auditory signal alone is often adequate for communication, visual information from movements of the lips, tongue and jaws enhance intelligibility of the acoustic stimulus (particularly in noisy environments). Moreover, speech is enriched by the facial expressions, emotions and gestures produced by a speaker. For individuals who hear well, these visible aspects of speech are especially important in noisy environments. The visual components of speech offer a lifeline to those with a substantial hearing loss: Understanding visible speech can make the difference in effectively communicating orally with others or a life of relative isolation from oral society.
*WMV of Baldi in action here.
posted by cenoxo at 8:54 AM on June 17, 2006


When played by Val Kilmer, Virgil wasn't obese.

(That was a horrible movie though. The real story as relayed by the New Yorker is amazing and bittersweet.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:19 AM on June 17, 2006


I remember a similar case, where the guy was all freaked out and overwhelmed by imperfections, like cracks in ceiling paint, that he never knew were there.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:35 AM on June 17, 2006


Poignant.
posted by nickyskye at 10:06 AM on June 17, 2006


StickyCarpet that is a really interesting observation. From platonic mental perfection, to the gritty awkward 'reality'.
posted by econous at 10:11 AM on June 17, 2006


A compelling, tragic yet hopeful read. Thank you.
posted by nonmerci at 11:18 AM on June 17, 2006


Anything by Oliver Sachs is always a wonderful read. I highly recommend all of his books.

Didn't he also have a TV show for a while?
posted by Zero Gravitas at 12:00 PM on June 17, 2006


To further StickyCarpets point. Most of the people I know who are nearsighted have confessed to being slightly jarred by the sharpness of the imperfections of skin, etc. that they percieve when they first get glasses. That's one of the reasons I don't wear mine. I prefer living in a just slightly blurry world to one whose blemishes are so immediate and captivating.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:03 PM on June 17, 2006


I prefer living in a just slightly blurry world...

The Enchanted Cottage (1945) sentimentally illustrates the idea that how we see is affected by what we want to see. It plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies (trailer).
posted by cenoxo at 1:23 PM on June 17, 2006


great article!
posted by jann at 6:19 PM on June 17, 2006


Indeed, prelingually deaf individuals who receive cochlear implants must learn to hear just as Virgil and others like him had to learn to see. As the article points out, it's not about the functioning of the body parts - it's about interpreting the received input.

Laotic said: "while you can shut your eyes, you cannot well shut the ears" - this is not quite true. Something parents of implanted deaf children frequently forget is that when the implant is taken off, the child is still deaf. Implanted children cannot hear and swim at the same time, or hear and take a shower at the same time, etc.
posted by etoile at 8:20 AM on June 21, 2006


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