John Hull

Blinded by the light

It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman.  In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’.  I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017].  In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work.  We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door.  Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.

The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014].  When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in way that makes it useful or meaningful.  In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets.  Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding.  We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge.  We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

In a similar vein see: ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016 and ‘Thinking out-of-the-skull‘ on March 18th, 2015.

Listening with your eyes shut

I am in the London Underground onboard a train on my way to a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’ organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Engineering Professors’ Council.  The lady opposite has her eyes closed but she is not asleep because she opens them periodically as we come into stations to check whether it’s her stop.  I wonder if she is trying to reproduce John Hull’s experience of the depth of sounds as a blind person [see my post entitled ‘Rain brings out the contours in everything‘ on February 22, 2017].  For the second time in recent weeks, I close my eyes and try it for myself.  It is surprising how in a crowded train, I can’t hear anyone, just the noise made by the train.  It’s like a wobble board that’s joined by a whole percussion section of an orchestra when we go around a bend or over points.  The first time I closed my eyes was at a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.  My view of the orchestra was obstructed by the person in front of me so, rather than stare at the back of their head, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to dominate my mind.  Switching off the stream of images seemed to release more of my brain cells to register the depth and richness of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5.  I was classified as tone deaf at school when I was kicked out of the choir and I learned no musical instruments, so the additional texture and dimensionality in the music was a revelation to me.

Back to the London Underground – many of my fellow passengers were plugged into their phones or tablets via their ears and eyes.  I wondered if any were following the MOOC on Understanding Super Structures that we launched recently.  Unlikely I know, but it’s a bit different, because it is mainly audio clips and not videos.  We’re trying to tap into some of the time many people spend with earbuds plugged into their ears but also make the MOOC more accessible in countries where internet access is mainly via mobile phones.  My recent experiences of listening with my eyes closed, make me realize that perhaps we should ask people to close their eyes when listening to our audio clips so that they can fully appreciate them.  If they are sitting on the train then that’s fine but not recommended if you are walking across campus or in town!

‘Rain bringing out the contours in everything’

16blindness9-custom1Last October I cited John Hull’s audio diary in which he said ‘Cognition is beautiful.  It is beautiful to know.’ [See my post entitled ‘Cognition is beautiful‘ on October 19th, 2016]  Last week, I watched the film ‘Notes on Blindness‘ based on his book ‘Touching the Rock‘.  We found it a moving and life-enriching experience. At one point, John Hull, after he has lost all of his sight, opens his front door during a rain storm and describes the beauty of the rain.  “Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience.”  You can read more of this extract at www.johnmhull.biz/Touching the Rock.html in which John wishes that rain could fall inside a room to give him a sense of the things in the room.  This seemed particularly poignant to me, a sighted person, who benefits from photons raining down on everything around us during daylight or when the light is switched on.  The photons cause light waves to radiate from every surface in a similar way that the rain drops cause sound waves to radiate from everything as John experienced. Our eyes are amazing with 137 million separate ‘seeing’ elements on the retina, or in digital camera terms, that’s 137 megapixels.  But to quote the Roman poet, Lucretius who in his poem ‘De Rerum Natura’ wrote “Nothing in the body is made that we may use it.  What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”  In other words, we do not have eyes so that we can see but we see because we have eyes.  John Hull discovered new ways to experience the world using what was available to him although he struggled with what he had lost.  It is difficult to imagine losing one’s sight but his diary and the film bring us considerably closer to an appreciation of the loss.

Yes, I know I switched from a particle to wave description of light but I wanted to emphasize that the photons don’t just bounce off surfaces, otherwise all surfaces would look the colour of the illuminating light.

 

Sources:

John M. Hull, Touching the Rock: an experience of blindness, London: SPCK, 2016

Lucretius (author), Alicia Stallings (translator), The Nature of Things, London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Charles Sherrington, Making of the eye, in The Faber Book of Science, John Carey (ed), London: Faber & Faber, 1995.

Picture: A production still from the film, Notes on Blindness, from NY Times on January 16th, 2016.