Blind In My Mind's Eye
"All the exams the scientists gave [study subject] MX confirmed his claim that he was missing his mind's eye."
"Perhaps the most remarkable thing about MX is that he did not need years to develop this new skill [of routing visual information through other brain parts than the mind's eye in order to develop an intellectual concept to replace the mind's eye images he lacked]...Perhaps his blind imagination was always available to him, ready to be used."
- Carl Zimmer, Discover, March 2010
"In your mind's eye..." has been spoken to me only a few times in my life, but I have read it on several occasions.
Unlike MX, who lost his familiar and much appreciated mind's eye suddenly at the age of 65, I never had one. Rather, it might be more accurate to say that my mind's eye is nearly blind.
Do a little experiment with me. Picture in your mind, one at a time, each of the following:
(1) the face of your mother;
(2) the face of your spouse (if this is not appropriate, the face of your father or one particular friend);
(3) your favourite pet in your life (if this is not appropriate, the face of your doctor).
Were you able to bring those faces up as you read them? I can't. When I try it's as if I have a blind spot where the face should be, yet I can get a general idea (not clear) of what I would see with my periphery vision if I were looking at these people with my real eyes.
As I write this my wife is on a different floor of the same house as I am sitting in, yet I cannot picture her face in my head, in my mind's eye. I could pick her out of a crowd of thousands of real people, yet I have no image of her face in my head.
Though my dreams have people in them, I can't recognize any of them. They have no faces to me. I dream in thoughts, not in images. I may have the odd image flash through my dream, but it's nothing like a movie.
Moreover, when I have wakened I can't remember my dreams. Even when I wake up knowing that I have just been dreaming, I have only experienced remembering what I dreamed about a dozen times in my life.
If you can do these things as part of our experiment, you have an active mind's eye.
Who cares? Science now knows that when you sleep you consolidate and fix in your brain your experiences of the previous day. Which experiences you choose to review while asleep determine which you can draw upon easily the following day or days.
When you studied, as a student, during the days before an exam, you created an easily accessible place you could get to if that information were requested on the exam. You created those quick-access locations in your sleep on the days following when you studied.
But...study? What's that? What does it mean? I honestly don't know. It did me no good to study before exams because by the time I had the exam booklet in front of me I had forgotten what I studied. Even when I sat with my notes in front of me, studying meant little because I couldn't remember what I had read a few minutes after reading it.
That bit of consolidating and fixating of recently read material for later retrieval may well be one of the functions of the mind's eye. It's not used just when you are asleep, as our little experiment showed.
The great sculptor Michelangelo, when asked why he pounded so hard on a large rock, allegedly responded "Young boy, there is an angel inside of this rock and I am setting him free." Michelangelo could see David inside the rock. I would only ever see rock.
As a child I dreaded those rare occasions when we had art class. Art class always meant painting, where a large blank piece of paper was placed in front of me. While my classmates happily created their masterpieces, I continued to see only blank paper. No image ever came to mind that I could transfer onto the paper.
An image would have had to be in my mind's eye. It wasn't there. Ever.
Study subject MX lost his mind's eye at age 65. Before that he used to lie down in bed before going to sleep and review the events of his day, like watching a filmstrip or movie clips. When he lost that ability, he quickly adapted by using other parts of his brain to accomplish formerly mind's eye tasks.
I never had a mind's eye. Yet I always felt the need to create in my mind, something, so I could make sense of my world. MX had a mind's eye, lost it, then used other means to compensate.
People who have all the physical connections for sight, yet are blind, often have what is called blindsight or blindimagination. Though blind, many can navigate their way through a room crowded with furniture, for example. Do we all have blindsight or blindimagination ability but not use it? Or do we use it in ways we have not yet discovered?
The researchers who studied MX, Adam Zeman, a neurologist at Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England, and cognitive scientist Sergio Della Sala, of the University of Edinburgh, continue to study how the brain manages visual information. In this field of study, it's still early days.
My experiences, those of MX and the studies of Zeman and Della Sala clearly demonstrate that children need to be offered a variety of learning styles because of the differences in their ways of learning. In education, a one-size-fits-all style of teaching means some children will miss out. Innocent and unknowing children will be blamed for being at fault for not learning as they should. Some schools address the need for different learning styles, most do not.
I couldn't even count on all my fingers the number of times "not working to his potential" appeared on my report cards, nor the number of times my mother was told in parent-teacher interviews that I was lazy. The schools I attended as a child had ways to assess my intellectual potential, but lacked the means to put it to use.
To my teachers I was lazy. Except in physical education where I was also weak and uncoordinated, which somehow also got to be my fault. The role me lack of a working mind's eye played in any of this will not be known for some time.
Suffice to say, I managed to work around the detours to reaching my intellectual potential, though many years after completing my formal education. I still can't throw a baseball straight or walk a balance beam without falling, even when cold sober and in the best of health. Maybe the brain can only adapt around one detour and has to choose which will take top priority.
At age 67 I am no longer called lazy. However, some people still don't appreciate why I sometimes can't follow simple spoken instructions or written directions. I have solved some of the most profound mysteries of life, yet I still can't find Waldo.
No one today wants to teach a man who is smart enough to have found evidence of what God really is and what the afterlife means. He's scary. Yet no one wants to teach a man who is so dumb he can't put together a child's puzzle. They are the same man, same brain, different abilities.
My education continues to be based on my own initiative. As a student, I am still a dunce, an oaf who is "too lazy to learn." Other adults, many of them, may not have the motivation I had to learn. So they don't. You meet these people in stores, or driving the streets with you, or at voting stations.
When people have trouble learning because what they need to know is presented in ways they can't understand, many just give up. Teachers need to recognize learning differences before that happens to their students. More importantly, teachers need to be trained on how to recognize the needs their students have for different learning styles. They have to understand and have the skills before they can put them to use on their students.
Before the kids drop out of school, and sometimes out of socially accepted behaviour.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a fancy sounding title for a book of ideas and solutions everyone can understand and teachers and parents can use.
Learn more about the book and the TIA project at http://billallin.com