The World at our Fingertips

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In 1972 John Berger pointed out in his book “Ways of Seeing” that “seeing comes before words“. That is sight before language. But in terms of your development, touch comes before both. In fact, it may well be through the haptic sense that you learn to know and find your place in the world. Before you are born you begin exploring yourself and what’s around you. As early as eight weeks into gestation you are able to respond to a gentle touch on the cheek. By 12 weeks you begin sucking your thumb and even make licking movements as you start to discover your environment. At 32 weeks you are able to decode a rich array of sensory information from the world in the form of temperature, pressure and pain, and touch is the medium for this knowledge. You are perceiving the world through touching it, or being touched by it.

Richard Gregory, emeritus professor of neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, de­scribed, when I met him in February, the remarkable case of a man who was blind from birth and regained his sight after a corneal graft. After the operation he could, to Grego­ry’s surprise, walk down hospital corridors without holding on to walls. Soon after leaving hospital he asked the professor to take him to the Science Museum to see an exhibit of a simple lathe. With the lathe in the glass case he was unable to say anything about the object. When the case was removed and he was allowed to run his hand over the ma­chine, he understood everything about it. “Now that I’ve felt it I can see,” he said.

Bizarrely, he was effectively “blind” to objects he hadn’t touched: he had to make the con­nection between the feel and image of the lathe before he could see it. It is impossible for those of us with normal vision to imagine this predicament – to be blind to an object you can see in front of you – yet it suggests that in some way we can see with touch, even that we need touch to see. In other words, there is far more crosstalk between our senses than we might imagine.

I recently interviewed James Wannerton, a synaesthete who has a neuronal crosswiring between two of his senses. The interview was part of a TV programme investigating the nature of Einstein’s genius and its relationship to increased connectivity in the brain. Each time James heard a word he would get a sharp, involuntary taste in his mouth, because of a mixing of his taste and hearing senses. “Yoghurt and wafers, Albert Einstein tastes of yoghurt and wafers,” he announced as I said the words to him.

This unusual crosswiring between brain areas can cause the most peculiar sensations. Imagine mixing touch with vision, which is impossible, yet strangely not as far fetched as you might think.

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Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.