Last week I put on a jacket I hadn’t worn for a year, and when I reached into the pocket, I felt a small, unfamiliar object. A couple of seconds went by before I realized what it was: a crumpled up, hardened packet of sugar. Normally, the moment would have passed as quickly as it had come, but instead, I touched the packet again, recollecting a passage I had just read: “We see with our brains, not with our eyes.”
My curiosity about the brain began a few months ago. I had been thinking about the fertile landscapes that exist in the mind’s eye, and I began to wonder: How do our brains process the visual environment around us? A friend suggested the book The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge, which relates wide-ranging scientific research through interviews and case histories—a very readable book for a complete neophyte like myself. As soon as I got into the first chapter, random mundane occurrences in my life became relevant, reminding me of a quote or an anecdote, ratcheting up my curiosity and spurring me on to read more.
After my reacquaintance with the crumpled sugar packet, I read Doidge’s interview with Paul Bach-y-Rita, a neuroscientist noted for his work in neuroplasticity. “When a blind man uses a cane,” Bach-y-Rita says, “he sweeps it back and forth….Though his hand sensors are where he gets the information and where the cane ‘interfaces’ with him, what he subjectively perceives is…the layout of the room: chairs, walls, feet, the three-dimensional space.”
Bach-y-Rita determined that skin and its touch receptors could substitute for a retina. When I felt the object in my pocket, I “saw” that it was a sugar packet because my fingers (i.e., receptors) gave me the information to perceive its shape, size and contour.
The other night, I watched a PBS documentary about an art school. One of the teachers emphasized the importance of simple observation, stating that her best students spent twenty minutes just looking at the model before they touched a pencil. Later, I read Doidge’s example of how the brain can “recruit other operators,” vastly increasing its processing power, provided there is a roadblock between the operator and its usual function: “Someone presented with an overwhelming task, such as memorizing The Iliad, might blindfold himself [and listen to it instead] in order to recruit the operators usually devoted to sight.” This made me wonder: What if
I could use my ears to see? I imagined a strange scenario: a life drawing class where, instead of looking at the model for those twenty minutes, you closed your eyes and listened as she described herself verbally.
Recently, in the middle of a project that required a lot of research, I had to leave town for a couple of weeks. There was no way I could carry all the books I was using, so I ordered some of them for my Kindle. But when I reached my destination and tried to resume my work, I encountered a problem. I had thought that I could easily search for the sections of text I had previously noted by using keywords. Instead, I realized that my recollection of where those sections were had less to do with words, and more to do with perceptual clues like spatial relationships, shapes and how the weight of the book felt in my hands.
I could “see,” for example, a favorite quote. It was at the top of a verso page. I had underlined it and scribbled a note sideways in the margin. The book was heavy and thick, and I knew that the passage was in the first third of the book, because I remembered that there was a lot more of the book’s volume in my right hand than in my left. How ironic: I had brought my Kindle to avoid carrying so many pounds of books, and then found that I missed holding their weight.
I have always considered each of my senses as providing separate and distinct ways of feeding me information. But I’m beginning to understand that my brain is not so single-minded. Instead, its “operators” work together, processing incoming information in the most splendid manner. I have a favorite tree, and now when I look at it, I realize that its beauty lies not only in its appearance, but in the numerous ways I perceive it: its graceful lightness, the sound and movement of its leaves when the wind starts blowing, and even the feeling of that wind on my skin. CA