Posted on November 7, 2018
Being totally blind since birth, I get asked periodically what I see, as if sighted people can’t begin to imagine what not seeing anything would be like if they were blind; this is, actually, in fact the case. Before I had ever been in an airplane I used to have dreams about flying in one, they were all fantastically wrong. My brain had no accurate data to base those dreams on, so it just made things up. While we’re at it, a congenitally blind person will probably not dream visually because they have no visual memories to draw on. A recent study, however, shows that it is still hypothetically possible to do so. Blind people who lost their sight as early as age 5 or 6 can dream visually over the rest of their lives, and many in this situation do; and now we’re getting back to the original question.
Damon Rose, a blind journalist with the BBC has also answered this question, but very differently from what I experience. He had sight until age 13, and went blind for a different reason than I; so beyond that fact that his primary visual cortex somewhat developed, and that his optic nerves may still have some residual connections, he also has visual memories his brain can still play with.
I was born 3 months premature and became blind in an incubator from Retinopathy of Prematurity; destroyed optic nerves, my eyes never grew beyond the size of a 2 year-old’s, my brain eventually remapped. People have respectfully said to me, “If I blindfold myself I can still see black, so is that what you see?”
Seeing blackness means you can distinguish between light and dark, which means you can perceive visually, so I thought about this for a while and came up with an analogy that I think makes sense.
Say you had a radio, and it picked up a bunch of stations. We could say those stations were different colors and the white-noise or static between the stations was black, except I can’t call it black noise, because that actually exists, and means near absolute silence. Then one day, all of the stations disappear with no explanation, so you still turn on the radio occasionally to see if they come back, but they never do. So now you’re just figuratively hearing black. Then one day you learn those stations will never come back, so you unplug the radio and throw it away. Now you aren’t even hearing black, you’re hearing in fact nothing; as far as the radio is concerned, which actually then would equate to black noise, and that time you had been using to listen to radio stations is now free for other things.
This is basically what the visual cortex in my brain, and those of congenitally blind people does. Once enough time goes by where there is no input from the eyes through their optic nerves, the brain begins to remap and neuroplasticity happens. When a baby, humans have many billions of neurons all waiting to develop, and totally impressionable; and since 90% of a sighted person’s sensory input is visual, that’s where many of them go. When there is no visual input they get programmed to do other things. When a totally blind person reads braille for example, the same activities go on in the primary visual cortex that happen when a sighted person reads print. Blind people are often thought to hear better than those who can see, but deaf people are also way more observant visually than sighted people who can still hear; in part the brain’s resources devoted to the lost sense redistribute and enhance those that are left. Enhance sometimes means increased, but not always , as in the case of children who lose a sense after age 2 or 3, but in those cases the brain at least is more focused on those senses that remain.
So in my case, what do I see? Absolutely nothing, which is not black; black would have been like the static on that radio, or the number zero. Consider for a moment, that zero is way more meaningful than nothing in mathematics; it is the center of the number line after all.