The blind painter

Here’s a story straight out of the Oliver-Sacks file: Neuroscientists have recently been studying Esref Armagan, an Istanbul man who is a proficient painter, even though he’s been blind since birth. He paints “houses and mountains and lakes and faces and butterflies”, even though he’s never seen any of them. (That’s one of his paintings above.) When the scientists hand him a cube to touch, he is subsequently able not only draw an accurate picture of it — but he can draw it from different perspectives, such as from across the room, or from above.

So they put his head in a brain-scanner (the story doesn’t say which type, though I suspect it’s an MRI tube) and get him to draw some pictures while they observed his brain activity. What they found was that his visual cortex was firing so powerfully that it’s nearly on par with a fully-sighted individual. And as the New Scientist reports, this leads to a humdinger of a question:

What is “seeing” exactly? Even without the ability to detect light, Armagan is coming incredibly close to it, admits Pascual-Leone. We can’t know what is actually being generated in his brain. “But whatever that thing in his mind is, he is able to transfer it to paper so that I unequivocally know it’s the same object he just felt,” says Pascual-Leone. [snip]

We normally think of seeing as the taking in of objective reality through our eyes. But is it? How much of what we think of as seeing really comes from without, and how much from within? The visual cortex may have a much more important role than we realise in creating expectations for what we are about to see, says Pascual-Leone. “Seeing is only possible when you know what you’re going to see,” he says. Perhaps in Armagan the expectation part is operational, but there is simply no data coming in visually.

A fascinating factoid, buried in this story, is that many or even most blind people have this ability, but aren’t given the ability to develop it; no one ever thinks to tell a blind kid to draw something.

This one’s been blogged heavily already — I’m coming late to it — but it’s so sufficiently weird that I felt it worthy of note again.

(Thanks to Brian for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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