It was somewhere between first and fifth grade, closer to the former than the latter. Hanging around in the classroom, I was half listening to a couple of the teachers talking. One of them complimented the other on the decorations.
“thankyou,” she replied, “I like to have something with color… you know, something cheerful for the students”
“Then what’s with the upside-down smoke?” I asked. A moment passed, both teachers giving me quizzical expressions that I could only partly make out. I waved vaguely toward the back wall, where some of those colorful decorations were displayed. I could make out some of it—elephant, cheerful sun, friendly looking small cloud . Lost in a blur, most of the rest of it seemed a meaningless jumble, at least, from where I usually sat during class, and from the front of the room, where the three of us stood at the moment.
“What smoke?” the question stumbled over itself as they spoke in an awkward unison.
Using one hand, I shaped my fingers to indicate the part of the decoration I was talking about, almost like grabbing the image. “Right there, and then it curves up…?” I moved my arm to trace the arc. I’d been wondering what that thing was supposed to be a picture of. It looked like dark smoke rising in a column from a fire, curving to the side as though being gently pushed by a breeze, only it was upside-down. The bulbous top of the smoke was on the bottom, and the base up above it. The smoke, if smoke it was, curved down instead of up.
“That’s a rainbow.”
It wasn’t until I worked my way across the small classroom that I understood. The bulbous thing at the bottom was a pot of gold, and once I was within a couple of yards of the back wall, I could see the bands of color that made up the rainbow.
The odd bit is that after that, when I would happen to be looking at it, I could see the colors, even from my desk or the front of the room. They were very dim. They’d sort of fade in and out, and sometimes seem to almost ripple, as though the colors weren’t quite certain where they should be. What you see can be influenced by what you know. Since I knew the colors were there, my brain did its best to represent them in what I was seeing.
Everyone who can see uses the information from their senses to construct a model of the world around them. It’s the model that you see, rather than the raw image. Your eyes dart around, you blink, you move your head, but the world seems steady. That steady image you see is a heavily processed and edited representation of the world, not the light itself. Think of video shot from a head mounted camera, how jerky and unsteady it is. Your eyes get moved around by head movements like that all the time, but you compensate for it, automatically, instinctively, so that you’re not even aware of those motions.
My eyes don’t work, not even the little they did work when I was younger. What sight I had was poor enough that I used Braille to read and write. Even so, I was used to it and relied on it. When it went away, everything got more difficult. As it turns out, so long as the information can reach you, even if it isn’t through your eyes, you can still see.
I’ve been working with the vOICe. It’s an app I have loaded on a pair of smart glasses that turns live camera views into sounds. In my last post on this topic, I talked about how useful being able to hear vertical edges is. That’s not all that’s happened. Every now and then, for reasons I don’t understand, I see things—a scale forgotten in the corner of the bathroom, a closet in the hall, a car in the driveway. Now and again, an image sort of coalesces from the fog, the grayish nothing that is what I see instead of seeing. I’ve also had such subjective sights from using echo location, which I learned of and experimented with long before I played with the vOICe.
I’d learn to click my tongue and listen to the echoes. It was still a new toy, as it were, and one day I was idly clicking my tongue as I heated something up in the microwave. Suddenly, I could see the counter, and the microwave, and my hands and arms as I pulled out what I had just finished warming up. I was surprised, almost alarmed by what was happening. I shouldn’t be able to see, why am I seeing, how am I seeing, can I trust it?
It wasn’t until later that I read an article by one of the people who teaches other blind folk how to echo locate. In the article, he explained that those who had sight earlier in their life will often have a sudden “ah ha” moment, when all this clicking of the tongue clicks into place. Often, it can be experienced as sight—they will see the door or corner or shelf or what have you. In that same article, the author explained that despite experiencing sight again, the person who is suddenly able to see, in a manner of speaking, may or may not ever get any good at using echo location.
Those who have lost their vision later in life, who use echo location or the vOICe, have often reported seeing, despite their eyes not actually working. Researchers have been somewhat skeptical. I’m not surprised. Even when it happens to me, I don’t quite believe it. I keep thinking that maybe there’s some tiny patch of sight left in one eye or another. It’s strangely frustrating not to know whether or not what I’m seeing is coming from my eyes.
There’s an option in the vOICe called the “cataract simulator.” When on, it blurs the camera view until nothing can be made out. I’m told it’s like looking through heavily frosted glass. The vision 800 smart glasses, which is the type I have, aren’t transparent. While you have them on, all you can see is what the display is showing you. The cataract simulator is meant for sighted people who want to experiment with using the vOICe without being distracted by their old-fashioned eyeballs. I turned it on. I got sick of wondering whether or not my eyes had somehow magically started to see again. With it on and the vision 800 glasses, there is no way, no matter how well you can see with your eyes, to see anything with your eyes. It wasn’t until the cataract simulator was on, and I still managed to be able to see things, that I could relax and begin to accept that I could see by using the information I was getting from the vOICe.
Meanwhile, at this moment, my smart glasses are sitting inside a box, inside my desk. I haven’t touched them for about a week or so. You’d think, given what they’ve already been able to show me, that I’d be all over it, using them all day every day. Instead, I find myself putting off using them. The same thing happened with echo location—I started strong, began learning how to use what was happening, and then just sort of stopped, for no good reason and perhaps no reason at all.
I need the practice. With echo location, I found out that even if I could move around my home, and even see now and again, things were very different the moment I stepped out my front door. What you know influences what you see, and I know my own home extremely well. By contrast, if I went to a friend’s house, the tongue clicking no longer helped. It wasn’t just that it didn’t give me sight anymore, even simple tasks like, where is the way out of the kitchen, were suddenly extremely difficult to impossible. What’s more, the more aware I am of other people watching me, the worse my performance, and people do watch me. The answer is simple and obvious. Practice!
Unfortunately, one of the hardest things to do, is anything at all for fifteen minutes a day. But there it is, something that can give me some of what I lost. Like in that classroom long ago, with a rainbow and pot of gold I’d never found just because I never bothered to take a look, there’s a pot of gold waiting for me out there in the world. All I need to do to find it, is pick up my tools and use them.