In September 2014 I spent a week without any light perception.
By Luke Kantola
A week felt like a long time, but the project was originally slated to be a full year. My early research was comprised of emails to neurologists and a visit to an optometrist. Across the board I was told that my visual cortex, left without the stimulation of images, would irreversibly rewire itself to benefit my hearing at the expense of my vision. I was told that even after a few days I should expect "extreme" visual hallucinations. Admittedly, I have had my fair share of hallucinatory experiences. Multiple psychedelic drug experiences, a vision fast, and severe sleep deprivation have all shown me my brains ability to produce images. This was much different.
I couldn't have expected the hallucinations to come as they did
The week took place almost exclusively outdoors on 20 acres of land that I knew well. To block my perception of light I wore a MindFold, a product originally designed by the painter Alex Grey. It worked exceptionally well. I wore it 24/7 and I didn't take it off for anything. The week coincided with the beginning of a year long adult survival program that I was apprenticing for so I ended up getting to meet 30 adults without being able to see them.
My first impression of this large group of adults was completely unbiased by my vision. The flood of visual information: social cues, facial symmetry, eye contact... None of it was a part of my experience with them. I could hear them, speak to them, smell and touch them, but I couldn't see them. My conversations with men and women were completely removed from physical attraction.
The magnetism of personality was my guiding light
Leading up to the experiment I intensively studied Human Echolocation. World Access for the Blind is the only organization teaching human echolocation (to my knowledge) and they have extensive guides on their webpage. I developed a tongue-click - A reliable way to generate a a sonar ping that would allow me, with practice, to hear the subtle echo that an object may generate. It became clear that a person could expect to do more than detect a wall in front of them. People can detect curbs, and tell cars from bushes. They can find basketball poles on a playground and even ride bikes!
My first day blindfolded I walked from a field into a forest. I stopped at the edge of the forest, put my hand out and instinctively placed it on the first tree. I was moving very slowly, barefoot, all week. It felt like a huge breakthrough to know I could pick up on the larger changes of the soundscape around me. The rest of that day was a lot of slowly walking from place to place and struggling to stay on the narrow trails that connected the land. I tried to hear where the trail was by clicking my tongue to discern where the well-groomed gap in the bushes might be. It wasn't until late in the week that I began to hear the echo off of bushes. It made no difference to me that I found my way to my sleeping bag after nightfall. It was dark all day.
I felt a slow, quiet peacefulness
In the morning, I realized that finding my way to the outhouse to take care of my morning business could potentially take me all day. I knew what direction it was in and that I had to cross a gravel road. It took a lot of energy to draw information from my mental map of the area. I walked slowly down a hill, careful to keep a general direction, and found my way to the gravel road. To the east, up a hill, I could smell breakfast and hear people. If I could hear people, I thought, and their coffee fueled chatter, I couldn't become lost.
If I could hear people I couldn't become lost
I walked down the gravel road until I thought I was outside of the bathroom. I clicked with my tongue but I couldn't hear any echo. I picked up some gravel and tossed it in the direction I thought the outhouse was. The stone flew for only an instant. One, maybe two feet before it hit the outer wall of the bathroom. I was standing within arms reach. My body shook with a wash of complete victory. I was elated with the simple success, but a greater challenge awaited.
Now I had to take a shit blindfolded
It was easy. A lot of things are relatively easy to do without eye sight. I could knit, and play some simple games, I could find my way around buildings and tell where my friends were by listening for their unique voice and laughter.
The most difficult moment came when I was searching for my sleeping gear and couldn't find the guiding sticks I had set up beforehand to find my hole into the bushes. I searched for an hour or two. Crawling around the ground feeling for the guiding post that I needed to continue. I met my frustration there. Anger and helplessness soaked into my being and there was nothing I could do but lie in some grass and feel sorry for myself. This was the only time during the week that I asked for help. My friend, David, led me to the gap in the bushes and I slept.
At some point in the night my blindfold slipped off
I woke at dawn and saw the Western Hemlock branches above me silhouetted against an indigo morning sky. I was amazed in the truest sense of the word. My mouth opened into a subconscious groan that expressed my awe while my hand deftly replaced the blindfold. I am very committed to authenticity when I set out to do something in a certain way, but I wasn't going to give myself a hard time for a simple mistake.
Later that morning I woke up and crawled a few feet from my sleeping bag to pee. Just a few feet to the East was all. But when I turned back to find the comfort of my camp I was totally lost. I couldn't be far but every guess of a few feet could have been leading me further away from my things. My relaxed demeanor was never more than a moment away from panic.
From this point on every memory I have is visual
The hallucinations came. In a strong way, but they weren't like anything I had experienced before. My brain was creating images that were vivid, and practical. When friends of mine spoke I saw their faces and the nuances of their intonation expressed itself as facial expressions in my mind's eye. I saw the roots of the cedar tree where people sit to take smoke breaks and I saw the faces of the 30 adults I had never met before. It was a wonderful game my mind had the opportunity to play - to be around people I had never met and to build physical characters from nothing more than their personalities and voices.
One woman, who I had never met with my vision, had an Australian accent and I saw her as short and blonde. In reality she is tall and brunette.
When I walked I saw the path and my feet. Even at night the images I was seeing were of things during the day. My ears didn't distinguish based on the amount of light, and in the dark I could move better than anyone else.
My biggest accomplishment was swimming in the pond alone
The next day, I set out to walk a half-mile down a winding trail to a small pond. It wasn't far, but I was walking outside of my comfort zone. I couldn't hear any people after ten minutes walking and I was suddenly without the beacon of their conversation. I had a long stick I probed the trail and other objects a few feet in front of me. Before that week, I had spent hundreds of hours on that piece of land. I knew that after I crossed the fallen tree I was about 30 yards from the hole in the bushes that led to the place I like to swim. It took four passes back and forth from the fallen log to find the path to the swimming hole, but I did find it. I left my clothes behind and kept my blind fold on as I waded into the cold water.
When I had finished swimming I retraced my steps as best I could but couldn't find my clothes. It was a serious problem. I walked in circles up and down the bank of the pond but had no clue out where I was or where I had been. This was at least a 20 minute endeavor. The task of locating clothing, when not blindfolded, takes the average human less than a second. 20 minutes is a different time scale. My life was slowed down. I only had time for what was essential.
When the week ended...
...I took off my blindfold after sunset behind a fire pit that was currently being lit. I was concerned when my eyes wouldn't focus. Everything I saw, the onslaught of branches - black against the twilight sky, was flat. There was no depth to it. But it was stunning. My brain was powering up and tingling with excitement as my visual cortex booted up. Slowly, I began to perceive depth and I was able to focus on things. I was mesmerized by the sticks and bushes all around me. I sobbed quietly with my gratitude for the gift of vision. The simple ease that vision allows in my day-to-day life is unparalleled.
The fire was being stoked up and out of the darkness came licks of flame and the human forms of my friends who were waiting for me. I stood up and walked, with the grace only a blind man with vision can muster, to greet them. Completely overwhelmed by the amount of information I could read on their faces I sat with self-conscious discomfort as I proceeded to reacquaint myself with the world of the sighted.