Recovery from Early Blindness

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R L Gregory and J G Wallace

Reproduced from Experimental Psychology Society Monograph No. 2 1963

4. Observations Made Immediately
After Discharge from Hospital

Before leaving hospital, S.B. had been out for short periods and we were not with him on these occasions. He had spent Christmas at home after the first operation (on the less successful eye) and had been out for one or two walks in Wolverhampton. He was driven to London from the hospital by Mr. Merrick Winn, with whom we stayed with S.B. and his wife at a London hotel.

S.B. was very tired when he arrived, and his eyes were painful. Mr. Winn told us that on the drive down S.B. had been almost completely unresponsive, accepting quite calmly what must have been unfamiliar visual scenes. He complained that the world seemed a drab place, though when the sun appeared he could see more clearly, and he was disappointed when it set. The one spontaneous comment S.B. made to us that evening was to describe the colours in the sky at sunset, to end sadly: "...then we came down a hill and it all disappeared". When questioned about his general lack of interest in the journey, he said that the speed was too great for him to see very much; this was probably not the whole story, as later observation shows. He seemed dispirited, and indeed he never seemed the cheerful rather extravert man he was at the hospital when we first saw him.

Next morning, at breakfast, he sat for preference facing a very large wall mirror in which the room was reflected. This fascinated him, and mirrors continued to be chosen objects. (At his "local", a year later, his favourite place was opposite a mirror from which he could see the street through a window.)

We took him round London, and showed him several of the "sights", but he was almost uniformly bored. He found all buildings dull, of no interest. His only signs of appreciation were to moving objects, particularly the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. He took great interest in them and liked to touch them while he watched. He described how as a blind man he often felt isolated and sought sounds of activity and movement.

He found the traffic frightening, and would not attempt to cross even a comparatively small street by himself. This was in marked contrast to his former behaviour, as described to us by his wife, when he would cross any street in his own town by himself. In London, and later in his home town, he would show evident fear, even when led by a companion whom he trusted, and it was many months before he would venture alone. We heard that before the operation he would sometimes injure himself by walking briskly into a parked vehicle, or other unexpected obstruction, and he generally did not carry a white stick. As a blind man he was unusually active and aggressive. We began to see that this assurance had at least temporarily left him; he seemed to lack confidence and interest in his surroundings.

We were disappointed in his lack of interest and response to the everyday sights, and so we suggested that we take him to the Science Museum, in South Kensington, with a view to showing him things, particularly tools, which he would have heard about and wished he could have used when blind.

(1) Visit to the Science Museum, South Kensington

S.B. had a long-standing interest in tools and machinery; we were thus particularly interested to discover whether the sight of these things would serve to stimulate him, and dispel the lethargy into which he had fallen.

We took him to the large Watt's beam engine in the main ground floor gallery. This certainly interested him, especially when we arranged to have it run (by compressed air) for his special benefit. So far as could be told he understood little or nothing of its function and was disappointed.

A model windmill he at first described as: "It's a sort of cross - is it a windmill?" Upon questioning, it appeared that he had made simple windmills for children, and this enabled him to guess its identity. He made nothing of the rest of the model, only the cross-like sails.

We showed him a large stone-cutting bow-saw, which had large clearly defined teeth. At first he made nothing of it: it took perhaps 30 seconds for him to identify it as a saw.

The most interesting episode was his reaction to the fine Maudeslay screw cutting lathe which is housed in a special glass case. This is a large and fairly simple example. We chose this object because a lathe would be a tool that he must often have wished to use.

We led him to the glass case, which was closed, and asked him to tell us what was in it. He was quite unable to say anything about it, except that he thought the nearest part was a handle. (He pointed to the handle of the transverse feed.) He complained that he could not see the cutting edge, or the metal being worked, or anything else about it, and appeared rather agitated. We then asked a Museum Attendant for the case to be opened, and S.B. was allowed to touch the lathe. The result was startling; he ran his hands deftly over the machine, touching first the transverse feed handle and confidently naming it as "a handle", and then on to the saddle, the bed and the head-stock of the lathe. He ran his hands eagerly over the lathe, with his eyes tight shut. Then he stood back a little and opened his eyes and said: "Now that I've felt it I can see". He then named many of the parts correctly and explained how they would work, though he could not understand the chain of four gears driving the lead screw.

The episode with the lathe was extraordinarily interesting to watch: it is a great pity that a film record was not made.

(2) Visit to the Zoo, Regent's Park

The officials of the Zoological Society Gardens very kindly arranged a special visit in which we were allowed to enter many of the cages normally closed to visitors.

Before he saw the animals, we asked S.B. to draw an elephant as he imagined it would look. (Fig. 15).

Fig. 15. Drawing of an Elephant.

It may be noted that this is a very poor drawing of an elephant; and yet when he saw the real thing, for the first time, later that day, he recognised it and expressed no surprise. This brings out the extreme difficulty we had trying to understand his world.

SB. had no difficulty in identifying the giraffe, elephant, monkey, lion, snakes or giant tortoises. He appeared to identify the tiger at once, though he was surprised to see that it was striped. However, after several cages of leopards, panthers, etc. there was another tiger and he did not recognise it as such. (As the first tiger was in the next cage to the lion, recognition of it may have been due to a natural association between the two.) He could not identify bears, seals, rhino, hippopotamus, crocodiles, or a gazelle. He was given a mongoose to hold, and thought that it might be a ferret, then a badger, then a stoat. He had never heard of a mongoose. He was amused by the elephants and giraffes, and particularly amused when he saw two giraffe heads looking at him from high up over the top of an adjacent cage. This was the only visual situation noted which ever made him laugh. He was allowed to throw cabbages into the mouths of the hippopotamus and his aim was good. We obtained a film record of this. When allowed to handle the animals, he did so with pleasure, and showed no fear or revulsion when snakes were hung round his neck. This also we filmed.

(3) Visual Skill - A Game of Darts

At S.B.'s request, we played a game of darts with him. He had played when he was blind by touching the board and walking backwards until he was told to stop. He would then be told the result of each throw. He now tried, for the first time, with sight. He occasionally scored accurately but was on the whole inaccurate, with a marked tendency to aim too low. He then tried with his eyes shut, and there was little difference in his performance. There was, perhaps, some evidence that with sight he tended to underestimate the distance.

We made several general observations during the two days that we were with him at this time: - He walked downstairs with complete confidence, with no hand on the rail; but on two occasions when there were three or four steps only, he stepped straight off the top one and had to be saved from falling. He would walk past objects (cages of animals in the zoo for instance) without seeing them when a normally sighted person would have reacted to them at once. On the other hand, when we asked him, outside Buckingham Palace, if he could see Big Ben, he said that he could see "that sort of tower if that was what we meant," and whenever his attention was drawn to animals in the zoo he would react at once. He said again that he did not recognise people by their faces but by their clothes - the colour - and that he was unable to understand expression on faces. He only looked at faces when spoken to and then in a rather "blind" fashion, though there was some evidence on the second day that he was beginning to look at faces with more curiosity. At a meal one would look up and find him rather tentatively studying one's face. One would have given a lot to know what he saw.

continues with Section 5 - Observations made after six months

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