The Other-than-Visual World of the Blind


Brodeys in-depth account of his experiment with the talented blind people. Essential reading to understand the origins of his ideas on human enhancement.

Charlie sat heavily in his chair, a white cane across his lap. He spoke with a West Virginia drawl. , Well, my daddy and me enjoyed deer huntin' every fall. I got to know the sound twigs breaking —even the weight, just by the way it sounded.

My daddy sure was surprised when I got the deer first. He hadn't seen...

It turned out that Charlie had worked hard to learn to shoot accurately by sound. It was a natural experience for a West Virginia boy. He used a can with a few pebbles for a target, swinging it just enough that he could shoot directly at the rattle.

Charlie was blind from two years of age. He had earsight but no eyesight. He lived in a world neither visual nor non-visual. It was other than an eye world; he used his other senses to perceive.

Do the blind Charlies have a skill to teach designers who wish to design other than the visual aspects of environment?

In 1961, I sent a letter to six blind graduate students:

“This is to invite you to attend a beginning meeting of our now forming perceptions study group. You are being invited. . . to help us with the problem of formulating questions, and searching out answers to problems which ultimately focus around the task of increasing man’s capacity to perceive (and utilize) the bits of information with which he is constantly being bombarded. It is assumed that we ordinarily perceive with but a small fraction of our perceptual intake capacitysmell, for example, is, in many, socially conditioned out of conscious usefulness as a data collecting operation.

We wish to explore and invite you to work with us. It is anticipated that you will be paid $ 5.00 per session for your time and work.”

They all came. Thus began the following happening.

We met weekly or twice monthly depending on the season. We taped each meeting. After each, we required each participant to write a two-page report. I added my own and my visitors experience to the end of many tapes. There were 95 one-and-a-half-hour meetings between the time we began in February 1961 and November 1964, when as a result of this and other experiences, I left my psychiatric practice.

It is difficult to select from a happening what happened. What can be communicated depends so much on the media. If I had a film of this experience, I could say so much more. If you were there, you too could have asked your questions of the situation. You might have answered the questions you uniquely perceived as full of meaning. I will select for my description the information that came as a surprise to me. In order to condense I will assume the style of dialogue and pass on the bits of conversation we actually had in many forms.

What do you mean, Doctor, when you say air is invisible?

I mean, Charlie, that I can t see it.

But you walk in it don't you?

Well—, you tell me about air, Charlie.

Air is thicker near the water; you can feel its damp swirling round your knees.

Do you mean you swim in air? I asked.

No, you use it. I can tell how high the roof is by the way the current of air ping-pongs off the ceiling. If you turn on your conditioner, the air from the wall vent hits the wall there and streams down here.

He points to the ceiling where it bounces, and walks without hesitation to the place where he is immersed in cool air. The ceiling is 11 feet high. The room is 21 ft x 25 ft, and the current he speaks of is three feet in diameter. I climb up on a ladder and monitor the air stream with my hand. It is as he describes.

He continues.

I need to know the currents of this room because sound is changed by the winds within this space. I must correct for wind. It can blow away the sound image.

He walked to the window and with his hand outlined the draughts that we, the sighted, know only when the sun on dust or smoke illuminates the currents.

He spoke of air layered over grass, each layer with its own special sound, like the soft sounds after rain and the crisp sounds of a dry day.

We spoke of the coating of water on trees after rain. The wetness, as well as making leaves shine; like paint, changes the acoustical quality of leaves. The image of the tree is denser because it holds wet air in its leafy grip. The pinging sound of a gas lawn mower can disrupt the acoustically imaged tree so that its lower branches appear be to waving violently.

There is air. There are surfaces. But these intertwine in a way that is not the same as sighted people know. Surfaces for the blind are to touch. Air is a connector of touch surfaces, filled with shadows and reflections, previews of what the blind person expects to experience in more solid form. One proves the sound by the second media of touching. It is then more concrete. Sometimes the image in air can never be confirmed by more than one sense.

Air is breathed. Its sound rushing through the passages of chest, larynx and mouth is the air being vibrated. And to Charlie, sound is not devoid of its media. Charlie and Janet talked of sound in water, transmitted through pipes, and through air.

Often we spoke of space. As I have said, their space was not empty but was air-filled, threedimensional space. It was made substantial with the imagery perceived and expected. The end of the most dense space was as far as the fingertips could reach.

When I was a little boy, I would visit my uncle, who was rich and had a big desk. I would stand on the first drawer and sweep my arm as far as it could reach. From wherever I stood, I never did reach an end to the desk, and I was not sure if there mightn't be a hole in the parts I couldn't reach.

Can you imagine feeling down a touch-microscope at an amoeba and finally touching it, feeling it move? A blind man would love such an extension of his fingers. So would I.

As Hall, Whorf and McLuhan point out, it is hard to go beyond the limits programmed into one’s particular perceptual culture. This prevents inventing even simple extensions of our nonvisual senses. The blind, if asked, can teach us how to experience the other-than-visual world. It is refreshing to choose from the new multiple images that then come into awareness.

Close your eyes. Your arm is immersed in a sphere of space which also contains other objects. Your arm examines these as they touch together. With your eyes closed, the game of who is cause and what effect changes. It is easier to conceive of events and things just happening to you in touch space. Preview is reduced when the distance receptors are out of action. In visual space one has more foresight. When you touch and are touched by the events that occur in other than visual space, you are closer to the level of uncertainty which makes lite more of happening; one can process less in times of rapid change.

What do you mean, Doc, one of the group said, don't you listen to people breathing? How can you see them.

I hesitated. They were so sure I must listen to people breathing as a significant sound to be dealt with. I gave a psychiatrist’s noncommital hrrumf. I was surprised. I was aware that what I called emotion was read from the other person’s words, faces, and fluidity or tension of movement. I was unaware of how I also listened to the other person’s breathing and my own. It was not until the next day that the thought became real enough to explore for myself. It was funny to have blind people talking about breathing patterns much as sighted people talk about faces. We worked this territory over many times. A blind person could listen to someone’s breathing sounds from a few feet away and identify him out of several known possibilities.

I was even more startled to hear about man as a sound emitter when his voice is still.

Well, Doc, you can't really be silent. Go ahead. You stand over there and move your body. I'll tell you what position you are in. I can tell from your clothes. They rustle when you move.

We learned from this that man has a sound image he is largely unaware of. We had fun taking a mike, lining up the amplifiers and listening to skin sounds, rubbing, and clothing sounds —the kinds of sounds John Cage and other artists are now using. This music is powerfully familiar in an uncanny way.

It really began to dawn on me how many important out-of-awareness signals there are in the ordinary message environment. For instance, when I asked my blind friends how they tell whether or not a girl is pretty, they said, You can tell by the way her heels click when she walks Good legs and a proud body present a regular hee

click; girls who slouch or are not sure they are pretty, drag a foot or make an unpleasant sound. Once you hear it, that description sounds familiar.

We talked at length about radiant heat and convection. Radiant heat was fascinating.

Well, of course I can feel a car that's been running and is hot. That's easy. You have red cars and blue ones; we have hot and cool ones. When they're cool, they're harder to spot.

I had only my kitchen laboratory, and one day we used it, taking the electric hotplate as a source of radiation and getting reactions. When I could no longer see the coil’s redness in the dark, I held a mirror to reflect non-visual light from the coil onto the shadowed face of a girl in the group. I was surprised when she put her hand up to the spot of reflection on her skin though she had no knowledge that I was holding a mirror in this way. Simple physics are not ordinarily conceived as embodied in such a personal way. Personal science comes as a surprise.

We talked then of how walls, bathed in the sun during the day, radiate in the cool evening.

Sometimes I'll be walking down the street and bang into a patch of radiant heat. _

Banging into a patch of heat, or banging into a sound image, fortunately not a tactile image, is not uncommon for the blind.

My mother used to be upset when I disliked going suddenly from the house into bright sunlight. I was dazzled. I would tell her I couldn't see. She thought I was crazy as well as being blind. But now I know it was the sudden flood of infra-red from the sun that overwhelmed my senses till I could reorganize.

The blind people in my group had a chance to know how light behaves and what colour is like, by using radiant heat as an analogue. But to my knowledge this is not used for teaching the blind about sight and the sampling of the signal environment used by the sighted.

You know, Doc, I think what you describe as colour is not unlike the kind of differences in sound we know.


From your physics it would seem that different surfaces reflect different wavelengths of light and absorb others. They do that with sound too.

To illustrate, my blind friends talked about the brightness of the sound colour in a tiled room, about sound bouncing off glass, and about the delightful sound of a car’s horn bouncing around in a corrugated metal hangar. They walked about my office talking and clicking at different materials so that I would know their many sound reflections.

Then they showed my how, when I listened from in front of a chair and one of them spoke from behind it, I could move about so as to outline the contour of the chair. Though acoustical shadows do not have the sharp edges light shadows

do, they are quite distinct.

We can approach the unfolding of acoustical imagery with help from the analogue of light. Blind people have a way of listening to the bounce of sound from a wall, as distinct from the sound that they could use to reverberate the whole air mass of the room.

You don't listen to the first sound of the echo. That doesn't tell you much. Listen to its way of dying out. That's where the information is.

If you want to listen farther, catch the higher pitches.

We spent many hours struggling together on how we might use modern electronics to extend other people’s perception into the world the blind know.

One day I produced for the group a sound source that made a loud sound just above the frequency I could hear. When it was very loud, though I couldn’t hear it, I could feel a pressure on my ears and a funny feeling in the bones of my face and a slight nausea excitement in my stomach. Older folks who listen to rock and roll will know what I mean. It vibrates you. It immerses you. When I reported this sensation to my blind colleagues, they laughed and told me

The pressure on our ears is what we use to get around—as well as ordinary sound. Try walking underneath an arch, or move from, the room to the hallway. You'll feel your ear pressure change.

Before I had only listened for sound. Now I had a new dimension. They were as pleased as kids.

I feel disturbed when a kitchen doesn't smell like one.

Once I used to sell paper flowers. Flowers that in real nature have no smell sold best. People sniffed the paper flowers for the smell they expected. If it wasn't there, they didn't buy.

It's a relief to find from the smell of the shops that I am on my usual route.

Of course I can tell which of my roommates has come home during the afternoon, even if they left again by the smell that they leave. Everyone has a smell.

The partially sighted, while putting their eyes up close to an object, learn to use their nose for recognition. Of course I can tell one bug from another by the smell, can't you?

Well, you walked down the street coming to my office, I said. What did you see on this trip.

The group finds it difficult to move away from the language that the blind use as if they were sigted, and back to their way of experiencing and piecing the experience together. The group struggles to put into words their non-visual perceptions of trees, walls. Their environmental images come from hands that touch lightly, feet that can read a map of sidewalk cracks between

office and home, faces that sense infra-red lights, ears that listen to shadows thrown by soundabsorbing objects, and that catch dying echoes and pressures from surfaces and spaces illuminated by a footfall, breathing rasp, or a lawn mower motor.

All these and more sense images multiply each other’s effect and are consciously used by the blind in their dialogue with the environment.

There is no easy way to put this dialogue into words in its wholeness. The individuals of the perception study group struggled together to join in understanding each other’s perceptual cultures. We are indebted to each other, for we all learned. We gradually established the right climate of inquiry, but we lacked the technical tools that would allow us to go farther than to awaken new questions. We used what we had


Brodey, W.M. “Developmental learning and the education of the child born blind.' Review of General Semantics, Vol. 22, No. 3: Human enhancement through evolutionary technology,” IEEE Spectrum, Part I Sept. 1967. Part 11 Feb. 1968;

— “Soft architecture: the design of intelligent environments.” Landscape, Vol. 17, No. 1:

— “Sound and Space.” American Institute of Architecture Journal, July, 1964;

Changing the Family. New York, Clarkson Potter Publishers 1968;

“The world of the blind child,” from The Pilot School Story, an unpublished manuscript.

Hall, E.T. The Silent Language. New York: Doubleday. 1959; The Hidden Dimension, New York: Doubleday, 1966.

McLuhan, M. The Gutenberg Galaxy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

— and Q. Fiore. The Medium is the Message. New York; Random House. 1967.