An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of January 9, 2011
issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruin in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

LEARNING TO SEE

On the Internet I came across a review of the book Space and Sight by Marius von Senden. When surgeons first learned how to perform safe cataract operations they operated on dozens of people of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases.

He found that, in general, newly sighted people were dazzled by the color-patches they experienced for the first time, and they were pleased, learned quickly to name the colors, but they found the rest of seeing tormentingly difficult.

Newly sighted people have little or no sense of form, distance, and size. Often they interpret stimuli in novel ways. For instance, one patient referred to lemonade as square because it was sharp on his tongue the way square things have sharp corners.

For me the most interesting observation, however, was that learning to see proved to be overwhelming for many patients. It oppressed them to realize, if they ever did at all, the world's size and complexity. They didn't like discovering that all along they'd been visible to other people, often unattractively so. In fact, many refused to use their new vision, continuing to examine objects with their tongues, and eventually lapsing into apathy and despair.

Those who did finally master vision, especially the young, often underwent profound personality changes. One doctor commented on "the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen." The newly sighted often grew ashamed of their former habits. They didn't like having to start hustling to look acceptable to others.

In a way this is similar to the lady I wrote about some time ago who lost the use of the side of her brain that makes sense of things. As her brain healed, she regretted learning how complex reality was, and what challenges lay before her if she were to survive. That essay is still at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080707.htm.

It's worth reflecting on these matters because today science enables us to see and think about the universe around us in ways impossible for our ancestors. In an intellectual and spiritual sense, it's as if we've been operated on so that now we have a whole new sense available to us, or a whole new section of brain with which to think thoughts never before possible.

Yet, as with the newly seeing blind and the lady who lost the use of the sense-making half of her mind, most of us find it hard or impossible to expand our vision of the world in ways our ancestors could not. Most of us stick to old beliefs and ways of thinking no matter what evidence is placed before us.

To save Life on Earth from biosphere-destroying human behavior, however, we must not only see and think about what science and technology reveal to us, but also put the revelations into practice, even if it's "tormentingly difficult."