Recent experiments by Beatrice de Gelder of Tilburg University in the Netherlands showed that a blind man in Switzerland could respond to the visual world without his conscious awareness.
“TN,” as he is known, has a unique condition. His occipital lobe, the part of the brain responsible for seeing, was damaged by two strokes, but his eyes still function normally.
When he was asked to navigate past a series of obstacles, he responded successfully. The researchers ruled out auditory or other non-visual perception. Apparently, TN was using a subconcious type of vision. He could not form an image in the conventional sense.
“Blindsight” is the ability to see at the subcortical level, where images are processed by the amygdala and other primitive parts of the brain. As the New York Times put it: “The brain has a primitive, subconscious visual system working in tandem with our conscious visual sense.”
Other experiments have shown that blind-seeing patients also respond emotionally to social signals like angry faces, even though they’re not aware of seeing them at all.
What are the implications of these revelations for us as artists? Even though our visual systems are intact, there is a deep part of us that responds to basic images—things like barriers that we might bump into, sources of illumination, or faces that might threaten us.
We’ve all experienced related phenomena. It happens when we react viscerally to something that looks like a snake or an insect, making us recoil a split second before we consciously register the object. It happens when we look at an optical illusion that persists in “fooling” our rational mind. It happens when a painting or a book cover “speaks” to us from across the room before we’re even aware of it.
Vision is more than just a function of rational awareness. It is also a profound ocean of experience, with strange stirrings that move us deep below the surface.
Article in the Guardian, link.