Sound and vision: Exploring the world of sight and hearing

What it is like to experience the world without our two main senses and how our brains mess with our perception. Photo: Wonder eye. Image credit JalalV via wikimedia commons

UNITED KINGDOM, September 5, 2013 — My grandmother taught me some basic sign language when I was a small child, and I later studied British Sign Language.

Armed with this language skill, I have helped out at various deaf/blind clubs for several years.


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I vividly remember my first visit to a club. I was very nervous, as I had just begun my BSL studies,but everyone was so willing to help, teach and include me in all their activities and conversations.

The friends I made there and those I have met since are used to my curiosity and endless questions about their experiences.

The story of Helen Keller, deaf/blind author, lecturer and activist, and her teacher Anne Sullivan’s ability to reach into her world of silence and darkness made a lasting impact on me.

Here is a rare piece of film from 1930, of Helen and Anne explaining the methods Anne used to teach Helen to communicate.

That Helen would go on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree, to publish twelve books and become a world renowned lecturer and political activist is to both these remarkable women’s credit.

Today I am a massive YouTube fan of Tommy Edison, the blind film critic, who also posts videos answering people’s questions about what it is like to be blind. Here Tommy is discussing color.

Check out some of his other videos, discussing all aspects of his life from the best things about being blind, to his least favorite sounds, how he dreams and can he draw.


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My first BSL tutor would recite and sign poetry, literature being his great passion. Lee is a student at the university of Bristol, studying to become a BSL interpreter. His YouTube channel, LeesBSLSongs, includes videos, usually filmed in his bedroom, of him signing popular songs.

I love his energy and the way he manages to convey the feeling behind each song. Here he is signing Megan McCormick’s Bullseye.

Optical illusions are great examples of the ways our brains try to make sense of the stimuli it receives and how this can play tricks with us.

We are hard-wired to look for patterns, faces in particular, even perceiving them where none exist. Seeing is not always believing. Here is Richard Wiseman of Quirkology with 10 of the best optical illusions.

We found out when he was very young that my son is colorblind. It has made little difference to him. I only remember one time we were watching clay court tennis on TV and he thought it was being played on grass.

I have always wondered what it must be like to see the world through his eyes.

Have you ever wondered if, even among those of us with what we call normal vision, we are all seeing things the same way? You may see that a tomato is the same color as a stop light or Santa’s suit, but someone else may be seeing all those things we all call red as being green.

It seems that our neurons do not have a default setting in the way they respond to color instead, we each develop our own private perception of color. Michael Stevens at Vsauce has a great video about color perception called Is Your Red The Same as My Red?

Here is a short, ten minute documentary from the MAPS Film School that explores synesthesia,a neurological cross-sensory condition where sounds, numbers, letters or words are involuntarily experienced as colours, sounds, tastes or feelings.

What I find interesting is that although there are many forms of synesthesia, there are also some commonalities: lighter colors go with higher sounds and there are significant preferences for the colors of letters.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen had synesthesia, seeing colors when he heard or imagined music. He often added color notation to his scores. He described visualising one chord as “blueviolet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant”.

Here is Messiaen’s Couleurs de la Cite Celeste.


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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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