Sight is said to be our primary sense, with some researchers estimating that it provides around 80% of all the information we receive about the world. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone can rely on sight in the same way.
Autism activist Temple Grandin discusses the topic in her TedTalk ‘The world needs all kinds of minds’. She mentions three types: the visual, the verbal and the pattern mind. She explains that she thinks in pictures, not in language, and contrary to most of us, she sees images as parts instead of as a whole. It provides her with an extraordinarily detailed visual memory.
This kind of mind is evident in the work of the autistic illustrator Stephen Wiltshire. He can draw elaborate city landscapes from memory, after seeing it just once.
So, what about the people whose minds are less visual, and perhaps more verbal or pattern orientated? I got an insight into this through the exhibition ‘For the last and for the first time‘ by the conceptual French artist Sophie Calle in Paris.
She asked blind people, who had suddenly lost their sight, to describe their last visual memory. Their portraits were hung on the wall along with their stories.
There was a woman telling how she clung on to the visual memory of her husband, because she so desperately wanted to remember his ‘terribly beautiful face’.
Everything else faded like dying light bulbs, until finally it was only him left.
There was also a man who couldn’t remember a specific last image besides the light above his bed before he went to sleep. “I didn’t pay attention to such things,” he said.
First I was terrified by the idea that you can loose your visual memories as you go blind. It made me think that visual memories are temporary and dependent on continuous visual stimulus and associations. But perhaps the woman and the man never had visual minds at all?
Furthermore, the lack of sight doesn’t necessary mean living a lesser life. The ability to adapt to a new situation is often only limited by ones ability or willingness to learn.
In ‘The Minds Eye‘, Oliver Sacks tells the extraordinary story of John Hull, who grew up partially sighted, and suffered continuously failing vision until he became completely blind at the age of 48. His brain “adapted to the loss of visual input by taking over other sensory functions – hearing, touch, smell – while relinquishing the power of visual imagery.” What he experienced was deep blindness, but also a sharpening of his other senses. He “came to feel a sense of intimacy with nature, an intensity of being-in-the-word, beyond anything he had known when he was sighted. Blindness became for him “a dark, paradoxical gift.”
Why is it that I feel that these learnings are valuable to share? Because we are visual communicators, with visual minds, but it does not necessarily mean that our audience are visual receivers. It requires more from us to understand those who experience the world differently to us – it‘s a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. If we consider the different ways people’s minds and senses operate, we can ensure that our communication is two-way and we can create rich multi-sensorial experiences that everyone can enjoy.