In the last year, sensory perception has become an important zone of reflection for my work. While we often talk of sensory perception as a singular experience, closer inspection reveals two different actions - sensing and perceiving.
I came across a story in my research that seems to illustrate this distinction. Michael May was blinded in an accident involving a chemical explosion when he was three years old. At the age of forty-six, he received cornea transplants that allowed him to regain his sense of sight. While he was technically able to ‘see,’ his brain could not process the input. It was a collection of colors, shapes, and images. In his own words, “I was trying to latch onto images and make sense of the world. It wasn’t as though I saw a face and said - ‘that’s a smile’ - automatically. I had to intellectualize the whole process, dissect it, and then figure it out.”
In our first nine years of existence, we learn how to see. Our visual cortex (a region in the back of the brain with two million neurons that processes visual stimuli) develops over this time. Since Michael’s brain was not fully allowed to develop this part of the brain, his visual vocabulary and spatial processing were fixed to his limited experience at three years of age. His brain could not develop beyond that fixed point. While he was able to enjoy the new experience of color and light, other challenges not previously considered while blind, became a part of his new world.
Ultimately, Michael talks about the ability to see as a different way of perceiving the world, and not necessarily better.
This story, and others (such as my previous work inspired by Temple Grandin and Naoki Higashida) speak to my continued exploration into the experience of sensing and perceiving. I’m reaching for a goal of creating an experience that fully considers sensing and perceiving separately, while presenting them seamlessly.
Interview with Michael May on NPR: