May walks down the street, he can't
recognize perspective lines, so heuses visual
landmarks to keep his bearings. "I'm
learning one frame ata time,"
Blind people spend theirentire lives understanding the world through their hands. Theirmemories, their mental maps of the places they know, theirunderstanding of Labradors, doorknobs, and the moguls on a ski slopeare all tactile. The sudden introduction of a new sense can't alterthat fundamental way of experiencing the universe. Instead, any newinformation gleaned from light is simply graphed onto the original,tactile map. "The old idea that there is one picture of the world onthe surface of the cortex is way too simple," MacLeod says. "In fact,we have a couple dozen complete maps." For someone just learning how tomerge all that information, this can make for a great deal ofconfusion. But it might also offer a richer, truer sense of the worldthan the one perceived by those of us who have never been blind.
Sitting in the lab one day, MacLeod, smirking like a schoolboy who'shatching a prank, slides a drawing across the table to May. On thepaper are four cubes. The top right cube and the bottom left cube aredark; the other two are light. The drawing is shaded as if light werecoming from above, so the tops of the squares are lighter than theirfronts. This makes the top of the dark square the same shade as thefront of the light square. Experience tells us that the top of the darkcube has been brightened by a hidden light, but it still seems darkerthan the front of a light cube. It's an illusion based on knowledge.Naturally, May doesn't fall for it.
"He's actually closer toreality," Fine says. "We once showed him two circles— a small one closeto him and a larger one farther away. To you or me they would haveappeared to be the same size. But when we asked, 'What's the apparentsize?' he couldn't understand. He kept saying, 'I know it's biggerbecause it's far away.'" Similarly, May's tactile experience withhallways and highways tells him that their sides are parallel, so hesimply can't perceive converging lines of perspective. "A hallwaydoesn't look like it closes in at all," he says. "I see the lines oneither side of the path, but I don't really think of them as comingcloser in the distance." He pauses to mull this over. "Or maybe my minddoesn't believe what my mind is perceiving. When I see an object, itdoesn't look different to me as I circle around it. I know orange conesaround vehicles are cones because of context, not because I'm seeingthe shape. If I picture looking down on a cone, it still looks like acone."
Learning to see, for May, is really about learning tofall for the same illusions we all do, to call a certain mass of colorsand lines his son, to call another group of them a ball.
OneApril morning, only weeks after his eye surgery, May took his skis andhis family up to the Kirkwood Mountain Resort in the Sierra Nevadas— aplace he knew like the texture on the back of his hand. This was wherehe had first learned to ski and where he had later met his wife. Thesun was out, the trees were green (greener than he'd imagined), and theslopes were surrounded by gorgeous cliffs (were they miles away or justa few hundred yards?). As the lift churned above, skiers in puffyparkas flitted by, popping into his field of vision. His wife, actingas a guide, had to remind him to stop gawking and ski.
Withonly one working eye, May already lacked depth perception. But he alsohad little experience reading the shades and contours of a landscape.Heading down the mountain, he could hardly distinguish shadows frompeople, poles, or rocks. At first, he tried to compute the lay of theland consciously: If a certain slope was being lit from the side and ashadow fell in such a way, then the slope must be convex. But once hehit his first bump, he was tempted to close his eyes and ski the way heknew and loved.
Only a handful of adults have ever seen theworld through the eyes of a newborn, and many who did came away wishingthey were still blind. Their family and friends had convinced them thatvision would offer a miraculous new appreciation and understanding ofthe world. Instead, even the simplest actions— walking down stairs,crossing the street— became terrifyingly difficult. Dispirited anddepressed, about a third of them reverted back to the world of theblind, preferring dark rooms and walking with their eyes shut.
If May feels differently, it may be because his expectations were solow. For a man who used to enjoy windsurfing blind and alone, able moreoften than not to return to the pier from which he'd started, sight isjust another adventure in a life of invigorating obstacles. Two yearsafter his return to Kirkwood Mountain, May has learned to match what hesees on a ski slope with his repeated physical experience of it. "Hehas jury-rigged himself quite a functional little system," Fine says."He knows that this kind of shadow makes this bump, this kind makesanother." Instead of closing his eyes on even the easiest slopes, hecan now negotiate moguls without a guide.
"People have thisidea that it's so overwhelmingly practical to have sight," May says. "Isay it's great from an entertainment point of view. I'm constantlylooking for things that are unique to vision. Running and catching aball is one of them— I've been chasing balls my whole life. Seeing thedifference between the blue of my two sons' eyes is another. Or if youdrop something, you can find it."
The gift of sight may seemmost miraculous, in the end, to those who have never been blind. ButMay still finds things in the world to entrance him. Sitting in thepassenger seat of Fine's car one day, with his dog, Josh, panting athis feet, he ignores the blue Pacific to the left, the towering,top-heavy eucalyptus trees lining the road like something out of Dr.Seuss. Instead, he gazes at the beam of sunlight filtering through thewindow onto his lap. "I can't believe the dust is just floating in theair like this," he says. Oceans and trees, Seussean or otherwise, hehas known all his life through touch. But this glitter of dust,suspended in the bright La Jolla sun, is an entirely new awareness. Hewaves his hand through the sparkling beam. "It's like having littlestars all around you."
Do You See What I See?