The Mind’s Eye
On December 19th, 2005, neurologist Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in the right eye. At the time he was writing what would become one of his bestsellers, Musicophilia. In his recent book, The Mind’s Eye, Sacks shares meticulous journal entries that document his struggle with degenerating vision, accompanied by a collection of case histories: individuals sharing the varied condition of a damaged visual cortex. In each case, these individuals found new and cunning ways to navigate − and be human − in a world defined predominantly by visual perception.
The “mind’s eye” refers to our brain’s internal imaging. This is not merely information received from our sense organs and translated into the brain’s visual space. The mind’s eye includes neurologically engineered hallucinations and dream imagery. To some degree, it accommodates damaged outer vision by hemming our visual discontinuities and recalibrating our spatial perception. The mind’s eye assists our perceptual glitches so that we can make sense of the world’s visual complexity. It works to form complete and comprehensible imagery in our mind. Yet when our perception is skewed, these images may be surreal. With his degenerating vision, Sacks perceives human figures to be “insectlike Selenites” from H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (Sacks 2010, 172). He describes moments where the city street becomes a panoptic, two dimensional surface, akin to the worldview in Edwin Abbott’s 1884 book Flatland, in which the personified lines and polygons must imagine a world in three-dimension to explain physical phenomena. Sacks empathizes with their struggle to “infer depth, despite the at times overwhelming flatness presented.” (Sacks, 187)
The Mind’s Eye discusses not only the mechanics of neurological disorder but the subsequent re-socialization and emotional adaptation that the so-called victim must undergo. John Hull, a professor of religious education, wrote a memoir, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, about losing his sight at middle-age:
With his new intensity of auditory experience (or attention), along with the sharpening of his other senses, Hull came to feel a sense of intimacy with nature, an intensity of being-in-the-world, beyond anything he had known when he was sighted. Blindness became for him “a dark, paradoxical gift.” This was not just a “compensation,” he emphasized, but a whole new order, a new mode of human being. (Sacks, 204)
In fact, once the initial trauma of losing an original sense of normalcy wares away, the newly blind may discover a unique, rich quality of life. The modification of sense organs, indeed, changes our reading of the world around us, and consequently, our conception of reality.
Technology has further explored alternative modes of sense-processing. Sacks explains that the conventional mobility cane, like a prosthetic organ, acts as a motor extension of the body, compositing angles, textures, densities, and vibrations into a mind’s eye image of one’s immediate surroundings. In the past two decades, neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita worked to develop sensory-substitution devices such as the gridded tongue sensor. His work has elevated the “cane” to a technological and perhaps a hypersensitive realm. The tongue sensor system uses electrotactile stimulation of the tongue to encode the information taken from a connected video camera. After approximately seven hours of training, a user can perceive, in the mind’s eye, the image of basic shapes, objects, and elevation changes in order to orient oneself in space; the somatosensory receptors of the tongue convey information to the visual cortex.
Beta Tank, founded by designers Michele Gauler and Eyal Burnstein, devise interactive objects and spaces that flirt with neural activity and sense organs. Akin to the tongue grid, Beta Tank designed Mind Chair Polyprop, which uses a similar sensory grid, embedded in a chair, to translate visual perception into the tactile. Mind Chair proposes that a child’s education could be augmented with tactile stimulation of the mind’s eye. Such examples begin to explore design’s potential to tickle the brain’s plasticity and, like Sack’s illuminating stories, alter our understanding of the world.
Sacks, Oliver. The Mind’s Eye. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)