Saturday, 24 October 2009

A scent of self

I watched Rosemary and Thyme on ITV3 tonight. The villain is usually pretty obvious from the start, but there are some clever horticultural plots. This week, a blind professor was tricked into falling into a hole on the allotment by the expedient of moving all his flower beds and a small windmill around, thus totally confounding his sense of where he was, so that as he worked by the sound of the windmill, and the scent of the flowers, instead of going towards his shed, he fell down a hole - an ingenuous way of killing someone by proxy.

That in turn made me reflect on the dominance of sight in our understanding of the world. We ask "Can you see this?" in relation to explanations, demonstrations, and shared experience. The recent Horizon demonstrated that a child can show it is aware of itself by seeing a black sticky spot placed on its face. But blind people also have awareness of who they are. How do they come to that when they cannot recognise themselves in a mirror? Does it differ from our kind of awareness? One publication on child art and development stages notes that a sighted child has these stages between two and fourteeen:

   1. Scribble
   2. Schematic (from the Latin word schema meaning outline)
   3. Realistic or True-to-Appearance

But a blind person cannot draw in this way. The article goes on to describe how they perceive the world and themselves in their art:

When blind children have been taught to draw successfully with a Braille technique, the forms they produced lack detail and resemble those of much younger children. In general their expressions are based on feelings, in that they project entirely an inner world of tactile and bodily sensations. Clay has been used frequently by the blind of all ages; schema are arrived at by feeling and touching selves and objects. Work is made by combining many bits of clay in an additive construction. Tactile activities of carving, modelling, tooling foil and leather, collage and mosaics, painting and finger painting appeal to blind children. Since these children develop a keen sense of hearing, music and other sounds can enrich their art experiences greatly. Rhythm, movement and line may be perceived through sounds and translated into visual expressions.(1)

Darwin commented on self-consciousness that it was intimately linked with language: "If it be maintained that .. self-consciousness, abstraction etc. are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language." And interestingly, this ties in with Helen Keller who was born blind and deaf, and yet came to a sense of self through language - in the learning of Braille. This is the description of how this opened the world to her:

It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old. The morning after my teacher came she gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letter for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. One day [a month later],while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.(3)

She also commented that: ""When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me". (3).

So while the test of self-recognition in a mirror may be a sign of self-awareness, I am not sure that it is the most important. It shows some kind of awareness, but whether that is the same as Helen Keller perceived is another matter altogether. Certainly when I see myself in a mirror, I never see myself quite as I perceive myself internally, my own self-image, much as the recognition of my voice played back does not seem quite the same as the voice I hear when I speak. The mirror image changes, it grows old, decrepit, needs glasses and a hearing aid. But the sense of self, how I perceive of myself as "me" remains, and does not seem to change in the same way. This again is something - continuity of identity in time - which would seem to be a necessary part of self awareness.

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