The Vision Thing: Seeing is Believing

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I started writing a few months ago about our five senses, and I’m ending with the sense of sight; it may be last but it’s very far from least. In fact, the sense of sight is so powerful and all-encompassing that it can actually detract from the subtle messages of our other senses. It permeates our language and has a particular hold on our imagination.

At night, whenever the skies are clear and, particularly, when there’s no moon, I find myself gazing up at the stars and marvelling at the beauty of it all; the range of colours in those twinkling points of light and in the steadier, ‘burning’ (as my father used to describe it) glow of the planets. How extraordinary that the photons from all those stars should have spanned the light years to land upon my eyes, been spun into electrical impulses and sent on to the brain where they register as visual signals and trigger my emotional responses to what I see above me. What an extraordinary thing is the sense of sight.

We’re able to see the world around us because our eyes and brains are sensitive to a section of the electromagnetic spectrum which is — for humans at any rate — ‘visible light’; wavelengths our eyes can detect and our brains then interpret as images. Many other animals have a different range of vision, and can ‘see’ in sections of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to us. A recent study by scientists at University College London (and published in the Journal of Experimental Biology 2011, vol. 214, pages 2014-19), found that Arctic reindeer are able to see in a section of the spectrum known as ‘ultraviolet’. The ability may enable them to find food and detect the presence of predators more easily in the low-light, low-contrast, snow-covered Arctic environment. In fact, humans may be in the minority in not having the ability to see in ultraviolet. It adds a whole new twist to the phrase seeing is believing; what other wonders might we see if our eyes were sensitive to a wider range of electromagnetic wavelengths?

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I remember when I was a child being scared witless by an old science-fiction movie called The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, starring Ray Milland. He plays a doctor whose attempt to give himself greater insight — quite literally — into the ailments of his patients ends up becoming a terrible and terrifying ‘gift’ which threatens to destroy his sanity. Something about that film gave me nightmares afterwards — the idea perhaps that he was seeing things he should not have seen, his desperation towards the end when everyone recoils from him when they see what has become of his eyes, or perhaps his powerlessness to give up his x-ray vision.

The sense of sight has a particular hold over us. Again in childhood, I remember an earnest discussion with schoolmates about which of the five senses we would most fear to lose if we had to make a choice. And almost without exception, we agreed that sight was the one. As a species, we are dominated by our sense of sight. Our language is full of metaphors pertaining to sight or the loss of it: we talk about having ‘a vision’ for a project, ‘losing sight’ of things, ‘blindly following orders’, ‘seeing the truth’ in something, ‘eyeing up’ a reward, and so on. The sense of sight is the last to develop fully in infancy and — usually — the one we come to rely on most to tell us what is going on in the world around us.

The dread of sight loss is very deeply ingrained too. In the First World War, tens of thousands of soldiers were left scarred and blinded by the poison gas deployed as a weapon on the battlefield; such was the horror of this amongst those who survived and in the general population that it strongly influenced the decision to include the use of gas as a prohibited weapon in the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1925.

On the flip side of that, though, is the idea that blindness somehow confers greater insight or even the gift of prophecy, as in the ancient Greek myth of Tiresias, the blind clairvoyant prophet. In Frank Herbert’s book Dune Messiah [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), the central character of Paul Atreides loses his sight, but his greatly enhanced powers of prophecy enable him to ‘see’ as well as any sighted person, and to see more than the rest of humankind. This recalls the idea in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes that seeing can mean more than just perceiving what is in front of us; we talk, after all, about seeing the future, rather than hearing or smelling it!

It’s a popular notion that if you lose the use of one sense, then the others are enhanced to compensate. What I know from my own experience comes from my time working as a radio producer. We used computer software to edit the recordings we’d made; it showed the sound as a waveform on screen, and with experience I became very good at recognising the shape of certain sounds (like the shape of a breath or an “um” or “er”). That made editing those sounds much quicker because I didn’t have to listen to them first. However, when I wanted to check something over after I’d finished editing it, I always played it back with my eyes closed, because with them open, I couldn’t be sure that I was hearing all the nuances of it. Like appreciating a favourite piece of music, it was better done with my eyes closed, otherwise I was distracted — my brain’s processing power taken up — by what I was seeing.

From my point of view (and there’s another sight-related metaphor for you) as a therapist, it’s incredibly valuable to tune in to what I see and hear when I’m working with a client; not just the sound of their voice and the words they use, but also the way they hold their body, the way they move, how their face looks, the differences in the colours they choose to wear from one session to the next. It’s all information that tells me more about the person I’m sitting with.

Looking at it from another perspective, and amazing though the sense of sight is, it can sometimes get in the way of appreciating the other wonders around us — the ones that we hear, touch, smell and taste. Sight is never something to be taken for granted — like the wonder of the night sky, it’s precious — but sometimes I think it’s too easy to neglect the nuanced delights that our other senses can give us, if we close our eyes and tune in to them.

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