Last 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.
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.