Monday, January 2, 2012

An Anthropologist On Mars

I finished reading An Anthropologist On Mars by Oliver Sacks some days ago. He tells remarkable stories of people with various neurological disorders and how they dealt with them. For example, there is the story of a Canadian surgeon with Tourette's syndrome and that of an amazing autistic woman.

There is a story of a painter who became colour blind after an accident. This was unusual because a person is usually born colour blind but this person totally lost his colour vision following an accident. Even his dreams were in B & W. He had totally lost the sense of colour. Oliver Sacks writes:
In addition to this medical fear, there was a deeper bewilderment and fear that he found almost impossible to articulate, and it was this that had come to a head in his month of attempted colour painting, his month of insisting that he still ‘knew’ colour. It had gradually come upon him, during this time, that it was not merely colour perception and colour imagery that he lacked, but something deeper and difficult to define. He knew all about colour, externally, intellectually, but he had lost the remembrance, the inner knowledge of it that had been part of his very being. He had had a lifetime of experience in colour, but now this was only a historical fact, not something he could access and feel directly. It was as if his past, his chromatic past, had been taken away, as if the brain’s knowledge of colour had been totally excised, leaving no trace, no inner evidence, of its existence behind.
I also find it difficult to explain certain things. For example, if I suddenly become alright today and went shopping, I would feel as if I was in a different country dealing with a different currency. I sometimes ask Jaya about the prices of some items and the values take my breath away. I have an idea of the inflation numbers but those are just abstract figures and very different from actual shopping experience. I am not sure how to explain this. Suppose a person watches the hour hand of a clock continuously, he will not see it move. But if he looks at the hour hand at two widely separated points in time, he will know that it has changed positions. A person who shops regularly will be like the first person. I am not implying that he will not notice the price changes but the effect will be far lesser than on me. I will be like second person, sampling the prices at two widely separated points in time and I will not know what hit me.

Another strange feeling is when I meet young people who I had last met when they were in junior school. I will not be able to recognize them and they will have only a vague idea of who I am. It feels strange to hear them discussing about whether they should study Engineering or Fashion Design when I had last heard them talk about Cinderella. I feel a bit like Cabuliwalla when he meets Mini on the day of her marriage.

Like most people, the painter described above gradually got used to his changed circumstances. His psychological recovery began when he saw a sunrise with all the blazing reds turned to black and seemed to look like an enormous nuclear explosion and he thought to himself that nobody had seen a sunset like that. Over time, he began to make splendid B & W paintings that could not have been made by someone with normal colour vision.
Although Mr. I does not deny his loss, and at some level still mourns it, he has come to feel that his vision has become ‘highly refined’, ‘privileged’, that he sees a world of pure form, uncluttered by colour. Subtle textures and patterns, normally obscured for the rest of us because of their embedding in colour, now stand out for him. He feels he has been given ‘a whole new world’, which the rest of us, distracted by colour, are insensitive to. He no longer thinks of colour, pines for it, grieves its loss. He has almost come to see his achromatopsia as a strange gift, one that has ushered him into a new state of sensibility and being.
Mind Hacks links to an old video of Oliver Sacks talking about various neurological disorders. Here is a TED Talk by him about hallucinations. He himself suffers from face blindness.

PS: I have partial colour blindness which used to cause some minor problems. For example, titration experiments in the chemistry lab used to be a problem. I could never make out when the colour of the solution changed. I always got the answer wrong and used to get marks only for writing the procedure correctly. I think I did not get any titration experiment for the Board exam so I escaped. I didn't know at the time that I had colour blindness.

Another problem was electrical lab in engineering because resistances are colour coded. I could never determine the value of the resistances so my circuits never worked properly. Again I did not have to make any circuits during the final exam so I escaped. I was one lucky dude.

Following the campus interview in TELCO (now Tata Motors), I had to undergo a medical test during which I learnt about the Ishihara colour vision test and knew that I was a goner. You can try it here. I can see the number in the opening panel - 16. All subsequent panels are jumbles of coloured dots for me.

After that, the closest I came to my colour vision being tested was after the campus interview for Bajaj Auto Ltd. The doctor pointed at a panel and asked me the colour. I said blue. He pointed at another panel and I said yellow. He seemed satisfied with my answers and I heaved a sigh of relief.

I used to hesitate buying clothes as gifts eg., a sari for my mother. I was not sure if she will see exactly what I saw. I must be seeing the world a bit differently compared to people with normal colour vision. I don't know how different. Perhaps they see sky-blue pink. Luckily, I never had this chemistry course.

1 comment:

  1. Coprolalia(the spontaneous utterance of socially objectionable or taboo words or phrases)is very common in the fauj....I was shell-shocked when I heard officers mouthing such language and kept telling myself that I would never utter the BC-MC or their equivalents..However "Bloody" is something that comes out whenever I lose my temper!!