The Tree With the Lights In It

Thinking about how we perceive the world is endlessly fascinating because there are so many things that feel so concrete and obvious to us in our daily lives that often we take for granted how open for interpretation the same perceptual experiences may be for others. While reading this weeks assignments, a essay that I read years ago in a collection by one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, illustrates perfectly how it is not only physiology that shapes the world for us, but our experiences in the world. In the essay Ms. Dillard talks about the experience of people who are blind from birth learning to see after undergoing corrective surgery.

In the essay, Seeing, from the collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard talks about her walks in the woods and how she tries to “interpret” the environment through the eyes of people who have influenced or inspired her (Dillard, pp 20-24). She tries “seeing the wind” by the motion of the plant life as described by Stewart Edward White, she observes a “green” tree frog pointed out to her by a guide which is actually the color of “hickory bark” and looks to be part of the tree, she notes that you don’t actually see fog, but the clear spaces between the fog (pp 20-24). These experiences get the author, and the reader, thinking about perception, which leads to her the exploration of people learning to see for the first time.

Seeing explains that for those of us born with sight, we don’t begin life with seeing eyes, but with the ability to perceive visually and we learn to see by our experiences. We don’t remember the experience of learning to see because it begins almost as soon as we are born and by the time we are old enough to articulate it, the experience of seeing is simply natural to us. Adults who are learning to see however are in a position to describe the experience and we can note how perception changes with our experience. For example Dillard discusses how the blind with no history of sight have little to no concept of space. Size, distance, and form are “meaningless symbols” to someone who can’t experience them visually (p 27). They cannot conceptualize what is meant by the phrase “behind you” for example. To illustrate, Dillard cites Space and Sight by Dr. Maruis Von Senden in his work with the blind pre-surgery as being able to identify a variety objects by touching, but post surgery they confuse things like “depth” for “roundness” (pp 27-28). Post-surgery patients often have difficulty gauging distance as well – reaching to grab for objects with more than a foot between the object and their hand.

In another instance, a newly sighted girl looks at family photos and asks why someone put dark marks all over them. The dark marks are shadows that with practice and experience she will be able to identify, but with brand new sight it looks as though someone has placed the dark marks on top of the picture underneath (p. 28). The human hand to another subject’s eye appears to be “something bright and then holes” (p. 31). This difficulty in identifying objects reflects the way we use Physical and Semantic Regularities in order to help us perceive what is around us (Goldstein, pp 63-65). What I found most interesting was the fact that colors are easily perceived and learned, but focusing them into the shapes that sighted people are so familiar with can be difficult and overwhelming. Dillard reports that for a long time many newly sighted people view the world as “color patches” and gradations of light (p. 31). This is best illustrated by the description of one newly sighted person experiencing a tree for the first time and describing it as the most beautiful thing in the world- ethereal, glowing, and colorful, but without knowing it to be a tree until touching it. She referred to it there after as the “tree with lights in it” because of the way the sun shown through the branches appearing to light it from within. You can read a bit of this experience from the essay in the link below:

In it’s vivid description of these experiences of the newly sighted, Annie Dillard captures the complexity of how we perceive the world and the many different ways that it can be perceived. For a girl who has never seen a tree or a man to discover with astonishment that they are really nothing alike visually illustrates the way in which out physiology and experiences influence our perception and why perception can be hugely varied based on the experiences and physiology of the observer. For me reading about the initial observations of the newly sighted lends a sense of wonder and beauty to this complexity. Who wouldn’t want to witness a tree with lights in it?




Dillard, A. (2007). Seeing. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp. 16-36). New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Goldstein, B. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Wadsworth, Inc. Pg.63-65


3 thoughts on “The Tree With the Lights In It

  1. Giulianni Hardy-gerena

    There are two examples of distorted perception in your post that intrigue me. They come from the case studies found in the Annie Dillard book you cited. Like you, I agree that these examples provide support for the roles of physiology, prior knowledge and experience in perception.

    The first example describes newly sighted individuals who have difficulty gauging the distance between themselves and other objects. It makes me wonder if a newly sighted people sometimes perceive objects as bigger and therefore, closer to them than we do. Surgery allows newly sighted people to perceive the images cast on their retinas, but curious things happen when that information is processed in the brain. Goldstein explains that sighted individuals are able to incorporate knowledge from their experience with the images cast on their retinas (53). However, without prior experience I can imagine that it would be difficult to determine whether an object is more likely to be small and close or big and far away.

    You also mentioned how some newly sighted people can see an object, but have to touch it know what it is. That reminded me of the experiment conducted by Gauthier and coworkers cited by Goldstein, where participants had to undergo extensive training to recognize non-human faces (69). Gauthier was also able to record how recognition correlated with increased activity in a brain area that responds to human faces. I think it would be fascinating to understand how the inability of the newly sighted to know things through sight alone could be represented at the neural level. Also, I would hope that the plasticity of the brain would allow newly sighted to eventually accumulate enough experience to perceive the environment more efficiently.

    Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Neuroscience. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed., pp. 53, 69). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

  2. Amber Heiber

    Wow, what a well-written blog and wonderful story about perception and blindness! It is definitely something to think about, and as you pointed out that we perceive things automatically. Sometimes we consciously think about, analyze, and ponder things (like art for instance), but usually this happens unconsciously as we go about our day to day lives. Oftentimes, we take for granted the ability to perceive. I’m sure it’s extraordinary for those who never had the chance to actually see and begin to perceive things for the first time, if not overwhelming.
    I have once heard that when one of our senses dull or go away, we develop a stronger and more emphasized feature of another sense. For instance, I did some research about sensory substitution and perceiving things in blind people through other senses. I came across a study done that allowed blind people to compensate for their blindness and maintain their visual brain plasticity via stimulation on their tongue. You can check out the study by clicking the following link:


  3. Nicole Marie Tobias

    Wow is all I can honestly say. I am certainly speechless. I have never personally thought about perception in the context of blind people “learning” how to see after corrective surgery, and perhaps because my thinking of perception is a bit egocentric. In fact, I never really thought much about how people who are born without blindness already start “learning” how to see immediately after birth, so I am glad you brought a different perception of perception (no pun intended!). Of course, it does make sense that a person just learning how to see to describe a tree as “the most beautiful thing in the world,” yet not knowing that it is truly a tree until touching it. Perhaps this is because there is no previous perception of a tree, and perhaps there is little physical and semantic regularities (in which, she cannot process the meaning of the scene of the tree in a field because she has not yet experienced before, and has not learned that different things are associated with different scenes, which make up the meaning of the scene (p.65)) within the previously-blinded person. This also explains the fact that a person who was previously blind would have a hard time describing distance, depth, size, etc. because there is little top-down processing to go off of since there are little experiences with perceptions within the world directly after the surgery. Of course, I am sure this person could eventually to learn how to perceive these concepts within our world over time, but I am sure it would be an extremely difficult and frustrating process that is also new and unknown. Likewise, although I thank God that I was not born blind and can see everything perfectly, I cannot imagine the fascination of the first time a tree is perceived. It must be the most wonderful thing in the world to see a “tree with lights,” and perhaps these people would appreciate things greater and in a different way. Of course, all of us born with the ability to see say that we appreciate this ability, and do not take for granted that we can see something such as simple as a tree…but do we really? I cannot name one person honestly that would look at a tree like it was the first time he/she ever saw it, even if they would “admire” the red and golden leaves of fall. All in all, I believe it must be such a wonderful thing to be able to see something for the first time, in which could be an experience that would be remembered (rather than seeing a tree for the first time at four months old, in which the experience is likely meaningless). Thank you for this example of perception through the eyes of a blind person now learning to see, for it made honestly made my day and reminded me to be grateful for all the little things in life.


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