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