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When Blind Man John Walked Like He Could See

Some blind people can see without even knowing.

Allow me to expound on that claim.

Not only did John insist that he hadn’t seen anything; he claimed to have not been aware of moving out of the way of the objects in his path — in his mind, he just walked straight down the corridor.

Other patients with blindsight have displayed their ability to sense emotion. When presented with faces on a screen, they could tell whether the faces were happy, sad, angry or afraid, and they even started to unconsciously mimic the expressions. And yet, they still insisted that they couldn’t see and weren't reacting to them.

How was that man able to walk without hitting any of the objects? If he claims that he wasn’t the one pulling his strings, then what was? And how could people with cortical blindness still perceive the emotions embedded in facial expressions without being able to see the faces?

Their eyes could still unconsciously track patterns despite damage to their primary visual cortex. The tracking movements of the eyes, however, were being mediated by a qualitatively different sort of vision which is supported by alternative brain circuits which bypass the primary visual cortex. In other words, the patients with blindsight didn’t need conscious object perception to “see” or act, and neither do we. There are circuits in the brain that perceive the world in a much different manner than we’re consciously used to.

So, if our unconscious is perceiving reality, but doesn’t need to perceive objects in order to do so, then what is it perceiving? After all, as a society, we have this presupposition that the world is a world of objects; that objects are the most “real things” we know of, and we need to be capable of perceiving them in order to properly interact with the world. That process usually goes like this:

That is not how it works.

The only way that process would make sense is if objects were unidimensional, but they aren’t. What an object is depends on how you define the object, because the object only seems to reveal what it is to you depending on how you interact with it.

For instance, what’s a person? Are people objects? Are they merely an amalgam of atoms? Are they beings? A large part of that depends on how you interact with them. If you go up to someone with a nice smile and say hello, they may reveal themselves to be a kind person. If you walk up to them and shout curses out of the blue, they might reveal themselves as a frightened or angry person. The point is that we’re truly multifaceted, and so are the objects of the world. So when you’re trying to figure out what something is, it’ll manifest itself only in accordance to how you behave towards it.

Even determining whether or not light manifests itself as a wave or a particle depends on how you set up the experiment. Objects are complicated things. So when you’re defining what an object is, even scientifically, what you’re doing is this:

“Here’s a multi-dimensional entity. If you approach it in this manner, it will manifest this set of traits.” The problem is that there are all sorts of traits that could manifest depending on how you treat it. So you can’t simply reduce an object to a certain set of properties without thorough testing.

So, we know that the world is not merely an objective material space. We know that the unconscious doesn’t require direct object perception in order to navigate reality. Thus, we return to the question: what does the unconscious perceive? And what does it mean that those with blindsight perceive and physically react to faces?

It means that their eyes are still mapping the image of the facial patterns onto the amygdala, and the amygdala maps the patterns through your nervous system, which runs throughout your whole body. I suppose you could call it “pattern perception”, but the phenomenologists stated it better:

— Binswanger, L. (1963). Being in the world. New York: Basic Books, p.114.

Why meanings? Because our bodies perceive patterns that are relevant to us, and things that are relevant to us have value, and if something is valuable then it must have meaning; meaning that, roughly speaking, manifests in two ways: is what I’m perceiving threatening or promising?

The reason we've evolved to perceive meanings first is because it helps us stay alive. If you had to consciously think, comprehend, and then act whenever something attacked you (like snakes, tigers, a rival human, etc.), we’d die because the processing is just too slow.

If we’ve biologically developed to see meanings first, and that’s primarily what’s helped keep us alive, then in an evolutionary sense, what’s more real? The object, or the meaning of the object?

For the longest time I aligned with the presupposition that objective perception is more true than subjective perception; that subjective perception is subordinate to empirical, objective thought. But as of late, I’ve had to call my fundamental beliefs into question.

Don’t get me wrong, empirical thought was a momentous development — necessary, even. It’s because of science that we’ve managed to develop a system that allows us to agree on certain objective truths, truths that translate across cultures. The fact that people from all over the world can agree that the earth is spherical regardless of whether or not they’ve left the atmosphere to check is staggering, especially considering all the little things we don’t seem to agree on.

However, one of the reasons that science can manage this is because it strips objects of their subjective meaning. It tells us what is, not what ought to be. It helps us understand matter, but it can’t and won’t articulate what matters. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal, but when your underlying belief in reality is that it is devoid of meaning, and any meaning that you perceive is, ultimately, just something that you or your culture “made up,” you lay the foundation for a nihilistic worldview.

Objective perception allows us to derive specific traits about reality, but we shouldn’t be so foolish as to assume that those traits are all there is to it.

. . . There is still much to be answered for. Blind man John walked without consciously seeing. We know how, yes, but what does that entail? If we’re operating largely on a unconscious level, then what’s driving our behavior? What directs us? What compels us towards our curiosities, and when we’re curious, what exactly has caught out attention?

There is more to come. Until next time.

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