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On the riddle of consciousness and human vision: a tale of light from darkness

Observe a baby with attention, and you’ll see that early on, he’ll cover his eyes with his hands to make the whole world (the entire universe) disappear. Stop. Gone. Then, as by magic, he’ll take his hands off, and reality will return. No adult will ever hold this feeling of absolute, paralyzing agency.

Blindness, on the other hand, is a whole different world set apart from innocence and reversibility. But vision is not everything, and we can overcome actual darkness. Or, as “seen” by Dante:

“Not in mine eyes alone is Paradise.”

Dante Alighieri, Paradise (c. 1308-1321), XVIII. 21

A taciturn friend

Taciturn characters are not the life of the party, and they avoid being the center of attention. Among the friends I made in college, I connected with one of them because our interest in music years before recommendation engines forever changed discoverability. His wasn’t a pose; uncool and ungregarious, he connected expressing the art he liked.

We finished college in 1999, which in Europe doesn’t feel quite like the life-changing, coming-of-age experience it evokes among Americans; if you live near a big city, you’ll most likely apply to go to an affordable (if not virtually free) University, to which most people commute from their parental home.

However, despite the lack of epic, there’s at least one main difference between college and secondary education experience. As the range of local students increases to encompass people from the whole area, your world grows accordingly, and you’ll meet people from other towns and visit different venues as life approaches the obligations and platitudes of adulthood.

I kept in touch with this friend, often thanks to his relationship with people we both knew, right before the nascent online world gave us the illusion that we were still in touch, talking about everything everywhere all at once, which meant—we would learn the hard way—talking to nobody. To me, music or literature were mere artifacts of expression I enjoyed and then left behind. Still, he became sort of a local critic of pop culture and art and soon had a small space on the regional TV in the morning magazine. He was good at it and always expressed gratitude towards our early cultural interchange, which he found formative.

Upping the game via the ultimate social network: the email inbox

Years passed, and I left Barcelona for Paris, then finally for the Bay Area. Nobody is to blame, perhaps the busy, scattered lives of middle-aged parents raising a family and trying to make ends meet, but our friendship faded away, morphing into the usual calcification of rich human relationships in our era of digital quantification: at least, he was a part of my social media taxonomy and me of his, a profile one can click on and find stuff out.

Only that, like me, this friend grew wary of sharing much stuff in his feeds, which I didn’t find odd but rather the contrary. Then, an email from him with the subject “Nico in 2021” came on May 11, 2021, the first either of us had interchanged in years. I’ll share the (translated) message:

Hi Nico:

“I don’t know if this email is still operational. I hope all is well for you and yours.

I won’t go into details because I don’t know if you still use this email account. But suffice it to say that I have a house full of cassettes that you recorded for me during college. Now I’m cleaning. Listening to a compilation that started with ‘Bathysphere’ by Smog I thought I had to write to you.


I replied to that message and explained that I felt lucky to live in a wonderful Paris place with Kirsten and the kids. I went on to express that we had managed the constraints of Covid fairly well despite living in a particularly dense city. How about him? How were things going, personally and professionally? —I asked.

On friendship and loyalty around pop culture. From Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000)

I also joked about the loss of enchantment once Spotify and Google had transformed the craft of finding great pop culture into a very passive but shockingly accurate routine. The “more like this” link had transformed many friendships. It was definitely the type of intimate small talk you’ll take the time to articulate in a fairly long text to an old friend who has made the effort of knocking at your email door (and, therefore, not looking for more public interaction with you on social media, a type of signaling taciturn friends are not fond of).

A middle-age stunner

His reply to my email, though, wasn’t the “no news is good news” message that I was probably expecting from him: the first paragraph was a thoughtful response to my musings on how the “long tail” of content on the Internet (an expression coined by an old chief editor of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson) didn’t always feel like a blessing, especially as algorithms were getting better at recommending and some people growing up in the new reality would interpret this rather passive attitude to cultural entertainment as the only reality there was. Why go places and connect with actual people to discover things if the machine does it for you effortlessly?

But the second paragraph hit me hard: he explained that his life had radically changed recently. He had been diagnosed with a degenerative disease affecting sight, and he had been blind for a while now. B-L-I-N-D, as in not being able to see anything at all permanently, for life. I recalled right away that he had always had trouble with his vision, using the type of thick corrective glasses that make you wonder how he had managed not to get in trouble in high school with bully mates, back when school harassment wasn’t as monitored (and micromanaged, which makes one wonder sometimes) as it is today.

He had never married and left his parental home rather late and now lived alone at an apartment near them. They visited him almost daily and helped him with the long and complex adaptation process, which felt like the “new normal,” a work-in-progress for the rest of his life. Hence, his previous email where he explained the effort to reduce the amount of complexity around him, including the reduction to just a few of those hundreds of cassette tapes that he kept. The memory recollection of a cassette (and a song) had made him picture me somewhere, carrying a life he didn’t know about.

My friend had tried to adapt as fast as he could to the new situation, using a digital assistant through the powerful and well-organized main association for the blind in Spain, ONCE. To a polyglot like him, with friends writing in different languages, it was still a challenge to get things right sometimes, but I could see he was writing the perfect texts he had always managed to do, with every accent and punctuation, which feels more and more like a blessing these days.

The connections we make with meaningful artifacts

Interestingly, it was he who thanked me for the orthography (this is a reminder that my Spanish and Catalan may not be as forced as the English that you are thankfully deciphering). He wrote (I translate):

“Since we have time, I will not go into personal details appearing in future emails. Your writing without a spelling mistake and perfectly punctuated is appreciated. Your words have been read to me by a synthetic voice. I remember being at your house and talking to your brother one day about the two albums Portishead released up to that point. I appreciate your hospitality (do you remember that little apartment next to the Cathedral, for example?), and when the right time comes, there will be a reunion.”

It struck me that the reminiscences of an object as obsolete today as a cassette tape I recorded over two decades ago had revived our epistolary relationship, which we have kept alive since. I haven’t read about how the algorithms of today will allow people to share memories that tap into rich personal experiences or how they prevent them, but this is not something to overlook, for there’s no magic if we can’t relate to other people and things meaningfully, sometimes using involuntary memory (Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time may have arisen from the taste of a madeleine dunked in tea, which brought back childhood recollections). I also read between the lines, even if I wasn’t trying to do so; some people—it could be a gender issue, at least sometimes—may feel uncomfortable talking about things that make them feel especially vulnerable, so it’s easy to express it through, say, music and a casual conversation. The music he had referenced, I could recall (even if I didn’t listen to it anymore), wasn’t particularly cheerful.

You say sociopathy, I say meaningful communication among free peers

Subsequently, my friend explained that he had struggled to keep the “mind map of the world.” Once his vision had deteriorated beyond anything considered a mere degradation that could be corrected with glasses, he couldn’t continue to work on TV. He was an avid reader of anything falling on his hands, from fanzines to magazines, to reference books, novels, you name it. Knowing him, many of his interests would hardly be translated (or translatable) to voice recordings or Braille, a language he had learned with much effort, as he would explain later on.

Kafka and European vs. New World attitudes towards misfortune

The first email interchange after his fortuitous decluttering of cassette tapes and other—now cryptic—paraphernalia from the past happened in a short period (three days, I see now on Gmail). I remember things from that moment that I didn’t tell him.

We did a video call a few days after, and others followed over the weeks and months, though we lost synchronicity when we moved to California. In late May or early June of 2021, the worst of the lockdowns and other measures was behind, but I felt the period was especially tolling to him. When the whole world goes dark, and you must learn to do things in a world that you saw before, you will need to remap your reality deeply. Then, a pandemic keeps you physically isolated, and it’s hard not to confront uncomfortable truths regarding odds and a cynical view of existence.

I knew that he was a reader of Kafka, and I wondered what he was thinking of Kafka now. One of the things that most upset some of my American friends about Kafka is the fact that his universe is very deterministic: the characters can’t get rid of the feeling that there’s nothing to do and they’re doomed to be like puppets in the hands of serendipity, fate, and the very byzantine, obscure force of bureaucracy. Why not fight and escape that oppressive reality? —they say. To begin with, if that were the case, Kafka wouldn’t be Kafka.

Whether Europeans understand better the self-imposed rigidities of an oppressive perception of reality than, say, Americans (descendants of transplants who decided to leave their ancestral places in search of a better life or perhaps also escaping from something or somebody) is a matter of speculation worth exploring. As an in-between (or as an insider-outsider, being Southern European and also being married to a Californian and currently living in California), I can see how some of my friends back home may take what life throws at them with stoicism: it’s something to deal with, but essentially it is what it is, there’s little to transform, whereas a more American approach would consist on trying to shape a new reality or, when it’s not possible, finding deceiving ways to “believe” so.

I say this because I eventually asked my friend whether he wanted to keep working, perhaps using his undoubtful communicative skills to start a podcast or a YouTube channel, explaining his insights, because boy, does he have stuff to talk about. I didn’t expect his response: he was basically impaired now; he had worked enough “before” the event, and now he needed to adapt to a new life. In that new existence, I perceived, there wasn’t room for a splashy second coming, a way of reinventing himself. At the same time, as a fellow taciturn character, I fully understood his position. Sometimes, putting content out there takes more than naïveté, especially when it becomes a routine that doesn’t add up much to the quality conversations worth stimulating.

A very long sentence, and, a, bunch, of, periods,

I had re-read Blindness by José Saramago months before. To those who haven’t read it, it’s a haunting story, but it’s also formally electric, being basically a rant —a virtually unique sentence, a mega-passage linked with only periods as separation (instead of quotation marks, semi-colons, periods, etc.), explaining the ease with which civilization can crumble.

“Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

José Saramago, Blindness (1995), p.326

The book relates the unraveling of a mass epidemic of highly contagious blindness (!) afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, which we follow along by “seeing” what a handful of characters are not capable of seeing anymore. Once the affliction expands, it’s the great equalizer of human misery, and we see from the inside how morality and other social norms evaporate right away as easily (or sometimes more so) among the righteous as it does among the underserved and more volatile characters. For many reasons, along with The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Plague by Albert Camus, it must have been one of the perfect reads at the beginning of the decade.

Somebody who understood friendship without buying into the gregariousness thing. “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Albert Camus and friends

Weeks after our digital reencounter, my friend confessed that the life-changing experience was also a true awakening of the rest of his senses. In a way, he explained, it was as if his brain was relearning to tap into the rich surrounding reality by compensating for the lack of vision by unveiling a wider, richer sensitivity of hearing, touch, taste, smell, and all the actual senses that Aristotle (and hence us after him) never recognized and isolated as such albeit existing nonetheless: perceiving internal bodily sensations or interoception (drink a black coffee early in the morning, and you’ll feel the laxative effect), the sense of body position (proprioception), the sense of balance (equilibrioception), the ability to perceive ambient temperature through our skin (thermoception), and many more that are difficult to isolate on their own but contribute to our experience.

“Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are.”

José Saramago, Blindness (1995), p. 126

A mind-body issue

Now, it was difficult to do the smallest things that anyone can wrap up in a wimp and then go about their day: leaving the apartment on his own was sometimes like stepping on the side of a cliff, entering a magic parallel world that could bring actual pain: his legs and ankles were full of bumps and bruises, a consequence of his painful relearning of crossing thresholds, going up and down steps and uneven terrain, or bumping into, signals, bus stops, and other elements on the highly urbanized environment where he lives.

Sometimes, he would think about something and forget for a moment where in his mental map he was, and after freaking out, he would find his way with a little patience and self-confidence, often with the help of gentle passers-by willing to help. It’s so easy for us to forget that vision plays a crucial role in safety, communication, learning, and the signaling that allows our brain to build a sense of agency over the surrounding world.

Our conversations made me wary of one of the mammoth concepts of fields as diverse as philosophy, quantum physics, neuroscience and cognitive science, anthropology, and also the current zeitgeist’s buzzword: AI. Not surprisingly, AI is also interested in the arousal of human consciousness and the so-called mind-body “problem,” or the correlation between mental processes and physical processes (movement, brain events, nervous system stimuli, etc.), and a few companies are trying to bring back or enhance impaired cognitive functions (hence, also sight) by using brain implants, aka brain-machine interfaces.

The field is still in its early stages, but I can’t help but read articles about neural implants from a different point of view now. How many people could benefit from partially or totally recovering impaired senses or cognition after an accident or the effects of a long degenerative disease? Sensory prosthetics such as cochlear and retinal implants could help restore crucial sensory perception: our world is transformed when we can’t hear or see.

Understanding the fabric of reality

In his 1997 book The Fabric of Reality, British physicist David Deutsch explores various aspects of vision and sight, a cognitive ability gifted to us by evolution that conceals interesting clues to physics and information theory (a topic that, again, is of crucial interest to the emerging AI field). According to Deutsch, who wrote the book years before the latest breakthroughs in machine learning and large language models (LLMs), humans are especially good at capturing large amounts of data and simplifying them so they don’t overwhelm us.

What we perceive through “vision,” which in essence is a way of processing lots of information coming from the world around us, is not “objective reality” but a very efficient, simplified perception very attuned to the needs of our species. This constructed model created by our brains is based not only on the information being gathered by our sensory organs at any given moment but by the process of information over time; in a way, it’s more about internal processing than the overwhelming external reality. That’s why some mind-altering events and substances can momentarily alter this efficient process of simplification as we build our “model of reality,” and hence, the information processing can be richer, including more information from different perspectives normally ditched by the brain.

A theoretical physicist associated with the quantum theory of parallel universes (yes, highly speculative stuff but at full steam in pop culture), it doesn’t come as a surprise that Deutsch highlights the crucial role of quantum theory in the amazing powers of vision we share (though with fundamental differences) with many animals: the behaviors of light particles (photons) with the eyes’ photoreceptors (“cones,” which vary in shape and type to gather different wavelengths) allow for a perception of “averages” so the light hitting a surface will make us instantly see which color is it.

From an atomic point of view, color is a perception that emerges from the interaction of light (a bunch of electromagnetic waves) with matter. The color we “see” will depend on how these photons interact with any given surface, and every species can see a more or less wide range of wavelengths or colors.

Music and colors

Like music, color influences us all, regardless of age or cultural upbringing.

With music, our ancestors may have paid attention to the sounds of nature—the percussion of rain, birds calling, chirping, whistling, hooting, and many other inputs—finding inspiration to create a patterned combination of rhythm, melody, and harmony that stimulates us in unique ways.

Color is both real and a “perception”: it’s a real property of light and matter, but from an atomic point of view, organisms look at “color” in different ways depending on the complexity of their eyes, which will determine how wide the wavelength range of light particles (photons) bouncing off a surface they perceive will be.

Several animals “see” more colors than humans. Most primates, including humans, have three light-absorbing cones in their eyes, each sensitive to a color range: red, green, and blue (and their wide range of combinations). We are in an evolutionary sweet spot, seeing enough to adapt to any environment but not perceiving an overwhelming amount of information that would require even more focus (and brain power) dedicated to sight.

Many animals have evolved to see a wider spectrum than humans, which allows them to see ultraviolet light and more nuanced colors. Birds see more colors than humans thanks to four types of cones in their eyes instead of three, whereas some fish living around coral reefs and insects use ultraviolet patterns to assist in navigating and detecting pollinating flowers.

Born or acquired

There are great differences in experiencing the world between those born blind and people who become blind after experiencing the world with sight. Individuals who are born blind can only imagine what visual experiences are, and their understanding of the world has always relied on touch, hearing, smell, and taste; by contrast, those who become blind retain visual memories, which influence their understanding of the world. People who have never seen the world have developed strategies to gain spatial awareness, but if you become blind later in life as my friend (or Borges, or the idea we have of Homer), the struggle to adapt to a complete, constant blackout is challenging.

Studies with people born blind prove that our concept formation as humans depends on learning with our fully sensorial experience. Unable to see, those born blind have to learn concepts of objects, colors, and visual events by using descriptions and analogies that remind us of the power of allegories and metaphors across every human culture: red is warm, blue is cool, etc.

To Carl Jung, “Color is the mother tongue of the subconscious.” Color connotations may have arisen from a mix of cultural, historical, psychological, and personal experiences. Some flowers, fruits, animals, precious metals, and natural dyes evoked the perception and relative value of different colors in our remote past, and some of these connotations may have stuck around in one way or another.

Borges’ Labyrinths

The vision of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges deteriorated throughout his life. The critical turning point, however, came around 1955, when he was 55 years old. He referred to this time as a turning point because Borges, more a reader than a writer, lost then his “reader’s and writer’s sight.” He still had some partial vision, though not enough to allow him to read and write independently, many decades before the invention of digital assistants and the boom of audiobooks, text-to-speech features in screens, etc.

Borges didn’t complain much about the life-changing event, acknowledging the ironies of existence: he had been appointed director of a vast library as he was getting blind. He had a million books to take care of, as destiny was preventing him from tapping into them.

His prodigious memory and countless readings in several languages (not only the great languages of the world’s literature but also, for example, Old Norse, which he taught himself to be able to read the Sagas) prevented him from lamentation. On the contrary, he claimed to have found new sources of beauty by embracing memorization, dictation, and spoken language.

After all, his personal tragedy was also an artistic tool and a way to create new forms of expression. He certainly knew his Cervantes and his Shakespeare. His 1967-1968 Norton Lectures on Poetry, given when he was 70 and totally blind, can give any podcast-lover a kick that no Huberman salad will ever aspire to. You can access the full 4 hours of goodness known by heart here.

Born premature, Stevie Wonder suffered retinopathy in the hospital incubator, which left him blind. He learned to create a rich world without ever “seeing” anything in the physical sense. Conceptually, nobody doubts he’s seen a lot:

“Sometimes I think I would love to see … just to see the beauty of flowers and trees and birds and the earth and grass. … Being as I’ve never seen, I don’t know what it’s like to see. So in a sense I’m complete. Maybe I’d be incomplete if I did see. Maybe I’d see some things that I didn’t want to see . . . the beauty of the earth compared to the destruction of man. You see, it’s one thing when you are blind from birth, and you don’t know what it’s like to see, anyway, so it is just like seeing. The sensation of seeing is not one that I have and not one that I worry about.”

Stevie Wonder as quoted in Stevie Wonder (1978) by Constanze Elsner, and Jet Vol. 53, No. 22 (February 16, 1978), p. 60