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Seeing in the Dark

Monday, October 22, 2012 - 07:00 PM

John and Zoltan are both blind, but they deal with the world in completely different ways -- one paints vivid pictures in his mind, while the other refuses to picture anything at all. In this short, they argue about the truth of a world they can't see.

When John Hull, a theology professor in England, lost his sight he became convinced that the images in his mind -- like his memories of his wife's face when she was younger -- no longer matched the reality in which he lived. He didn't want to live in a world of fantasy, so decided to stop picturing the world altogether. Zoltan Torey, on the other hand, simply couldn't stand living in a world without images, so he resolved to visualize everything. He constantly creates a world of pictures inside his head that (he says) matches up with the world as it really is.

Because they settled on diametrically opposed ways of living without sight, we wondered what would happen if we got them on the phone together to duke it out. So we patched them through our studio, and recorded their conversation for our live show In the Dark.

While John finds truth in darkness, Zoltan sees an emotional void. And as they argue, they reveal some very powerful truths about how we connect to one another. 

And! Before we go, a quick reminder that we need your support to keep this podcast going strong, to keep giving you stories like this one. If you like what we do, help us keep it coming -- it takes just a few minutes. For a $75 contribution, you can pick up a copy of "Demetri Martin: Standup Comedian" as a thank you gift. Or join our new digital membership program, Lab Partners, and we'll thank you with new downloads each month like Radiolab ringtones, digital posters, and video extras -- in November, Lab Partners will get exclusive access to a video of Demetri performing during our live show In the Dark. Thanks in advance, and thanks so much to everyone who's already donated!

Read more:

Zoltan Torey, The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain

John Hull, On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness


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Comments [46]

Delora from Carrollton Ohio

I love the show, but Jesus fudge the little brat in the intro that shrieks "SHORTS!" irritates me to no fudging end. I know the producer thinks his crotch demon is the most adorable little shirt on the planet but please don't bother us with it.

May. 06 2016 11:26 PM
James from Santa Clarita, CA

Please, what is the acoustic melody playing at the intro and end of the episode, 23:20-25:00? I would love to learn to play this.

Jan. 20 2016 07:58 PM
Jason from Australia

John should have reconsidered detraining his visual cortex because a few different technologies are channeling information from other senses to the visual centres of the brain to reconstruct the physical environment. I think a recent podcast described one of these where the tongue is used.

There was also a deep emotional lesson that I learnt here. We receive so much visual information that we forget to close our eyes and just feeeeeeeel. His description of what his son is to him revealed to me what is most important in our relationship with our progeny, and it isn't what they look like. I'm going to close my eyes sometimes and just feel the moment with my child.

Nov. 02 2015 11:09 PM
Toni L. Gatsby from NY

I think that it would be terrifying to loose your sight, and I do think it would be quite boring. I think that is is unfair to John's wife because he married her because he loved her, so he wouldn't mind any 'little gray hairs' or 'little wrinkles.' The others are trying to comfort her, but also insulting their relationship. I could not imagine not ever picturing anything. Once your sight is gone, it is a good idea to not strain yourself about remembering what things look like (especially people close to you), but I personally wouldn't push it to the side. The most traumatic part of this podcast is the falling of the acid. The importance of the images to Zulton makes me realize how I take my sight for granted.

Feb. 04 2015 11:08 PM
Loreli E. Bond from United States

I found this podcast very interesting! It really opened my eyes to the dark world of the blind. Honestly I had always thought that blind people could form pictures in their head, but how can they if they have nothing to base their pictures off of? And also with people that have seen and gone gradually blind, I didn't realize that their pictures would go away, and even the idea of a hallway with 3D aspects would start to fade, until descriptive words have lost all meaning. The main point of this podcast was to show how different people cope with blindness, one is by forcing themselves to not picture their family members because of the injustice that it would do them, with a never changing picture of his family in his head. Another is to try to feel and form a picture of things and people by using the senses. Both are ways of coping with the handicap and it depends on the person.

Jan. 24 2015 10:59 AM
Virginia N. Plath from United States

This podcast really made me think. If I were blind, which of the two ways of thinking would I chose? I think I would have to pick Zoltan. I am a visual person and find a lot of beauty in the things around me. I don't think I would be able to stop myself from imagining or remembering what things look like. I do see John's point though. Some imaginings wouldn't be accurate. But to me, that doesn't matter. It's just at least imagining someone or something there.

Jan. 12 2015 03:24 PM
airwoman13 from Florida

This is quite intriguing to think about. Being a person with sight, it is quite hard for me to imagine gaining feelings for another person without visualizing them in some aspect, even if I have never seen a picture of them and have only spoken to them whether it be via internet or phone. Which I have done. I have spoken to someone I have never seen a picture of and gained affection towards them, however, I have thought about what they look like or what they do during the day. It is quite hard to have thoughts about someone or something without visualizing it.

Apr. 16 2014 07:50 PM
the dude

Hey I found that in the podcast that they say "don't look down..." but in space there is no up nor down/

Apr. 07 2014 02:51 AM
Nat Who from Melbourne, Australia

I'm not sure if this point has been brought up yet....
I feel its worth bringing up that what we 'see' is all in our head, an image that has been transferred from light hitting our retina and then processed into an image and flipped the right way up by our brain.

When we are awake, all the experiences we have are interrupted by memories and more visual information, our brains making short-cuts about what we see and assuming things to make the day easier; eg that is why mug shots, and eye-witness statements aren't very trustworthy as most of the time colours are mixed up and people remember wrong, or even just see a different face in their head to in reality
- a huge part of our world 'imagined'.

As an artist I'm particularly aware of this because of the process I use (or rather my brain uses) to paint a portrait - even though I have a photo reference, the painting itself ends up looking like what I'm seeing in my head, not what the actual picture looks like.

What I'm trying to say is that if vision is imagined by sighted people, then the same would go for those who cannot see; there is no such thing as a visual reality - Zoltan's world must be the closest you can get to a real world as he has no distraction from his eyes.

Mar. 16 2014 09:53 PM
Andrew Horner from Manchester, UK

Listening to this reminded me of a story of John Arlott, who commentated on cricket for BBC radio from the 1940s to the 1970s. He reportedly said that when broadcasting he imagined he was speaking to a blind man who once could see.

Aug. 15 2013 05:39 PM
bubble buster

so I know this is an oldie, but listening to it again, and found myself wondering: both men are pretty intelligent and philosophical, and both have made a choice, implemented with effort. Where would 'average' blind people fall in the spectrum of visualizing v. not visualizing?

Aug. 01 2013 08:41 PM

I agree with John. It's just like how I have listened to Radiolab, Fresh Air and This American Life for years and years and yet I have conscientiously chosen to never look up an image of Jad, Robert, Terri, or Ira because I prefer to imagine them as voices; their very existence in my universe consists of the sounds they produce and the subtleties and textures and emotions produced by their voices. And I'm afraid that my opinion of them would change on account of some kind of...stereotypical visual bias that I might have if I were to see their faces.

Jan. 11 2013 01:38 AM
John French

We know that parental birds do communicate with late-term embryos in the egg, before hatching, but we know little about the impact of early development on later parental behavior in birds. We play recordings of the ' brood call', a soft call parental cranes use to call the little chicks back to their side, to whooping crane eggs before they hatch. Costumed caretakers use this call for the same purpose when they are training the chicks. The current reproductive problem we see in the reintroduced whooping cranes is poor or incomplete incubation. Obviously, a chick would not experience its parent incubating eggs after that chick has hatched. (There are two eggs in most whooper nests that hatch very close together.) But, adult cranes have been noticed vocalizing when turning eggs in the nest. Possibly, other sensory inputs are important to (e.g. heat, heartbeat or other internal sounds from the incubating adult). Later in life, all chicks we hatch see and interact with adult whooping cranes housed in the adjacent pens (we call them imprint models) and those adults often show lots of parental behavior towards the chicks.
The initial goal in this reintroduction was to establish a migratory flock and there were no whooping cranes migrating in the eastern US for reintroduced birds to learn from. To teach migration, costumed handlers raise the chicks and we encourage them to imprint on the costumed handlers and follow the ulatrlight. This developmental environment is very different from that of a wild chick, but inducing the chicks to follow the ultralight was not possible with chicks raised by adult whoopers. The technique has worked: a flock of about 100 whooping cranes now migrate in the eastern US. Now, we can release the fledged birds into that flock and they will migrate properly without migration training. So we have the opportunity to examine the impact of costume rearing, by releasing some chicks that have been raised by their parents, which we plan to do.
There may be other reasons for poor incubation in whooping cranes. A lot of research on birds notes energetic stress as a cause of intermittent and incompletion of incubation (i.e. if a bird is hungry, it leaves the nest to eat). We have noticed the large number of black flies infesting some of these cranes, so we have run experiments to check this out. As is often the case, the data are not perfectly clear from this. Also our data suggest that chicks more closely related to their wild ancestors (birds with fewer generations of captive ancestors), may be the more successful incubators. All of these ideas are plausible, all have some evidence for them, but just because they make sense does not mean they are actually correct, or important even if true. Through our research projects, we are trying to figure out which are the important husbandry and management actions to promote successful reproduction of reintroduced whooping cranes.

Jan. 07 2013 06:59 PM

John says he stopped visualizing everything because he doesn't want to imagine a lie, but the actual image of his wife is not necessarily the "truth." On many levels, vision is part fantasy/imagination even for the sighted.

Dec. 20 2012 10:41 AM
Ben Parsons from PA

I have eyesight but I need glasses to make out any details further than 10 or 15 feet. When I have glasses I walk down the street and ignor most people or strangers walking by but without the glasses my minds eye takes the limited information and builds an imagined face for that person. If I get close enough to see their true face it's always a surprise. If im single and looking to meet a woman without my glasses I never make a negative assumption about someone but with my glasses I will see a small wrinkle or bump or flaw and instantaniously write her off. I don't use glasses anymore because I love my minds eye version of life and It helps me to treat people nicer and give everyone a chance rather than unconsciously finding flaws and reasons not to talk to them.

Nov. 30 2012 01:11 PM
Tyler Fernandes from Indianapolis

Could someone please tell me what the background music in this podcast's intro is? It sounds lovely.

Nov. 15 2012 08:32 PM
Margot from Colorado

Another take on "seeing without seeing" is the biography of Jacques Lusseyran, called "And There Was Light." Riveting.

Nov. 15 2012 12:41 PM
Joe Pantuso

Pretty sure the "NASA hold music" is Jupiter. This would also be basically what the Apollo mission guys could pick up when on the dark side of the moon.

Nov. 14 2012 10:42 AM
Bishop from Brooklyn

I love the scoring brought in to describe the pictureless blind guys relationship to his boy... just perfect tone and timing. It made the whole piece worth the listen.

Nov. 10 2012 03:39 PM
Layna Berman from West Sonoma Co., CA

I am a syndicated radio journalist with a critical, investigative health/science/environment weekly program
on the Pacifica Network. I've been doing this as a volunteer for almost twenty years. While I certainly understand how expensive it is to produce a program, particularly without funding, I believe you might be crossing a line.
I have been listening for years to your podcasts, they are among the best programs anywhere. But the numerous long promotional segments are making me want to stop listening. They certainly don't make me want to contribute.
A short intro asking for help, seems sufficient.

Still, you do have an extraordinary, groundbreaking program. Thanks so much for that.

Nov. 10 2012 01:47 PM
Tom St. Cyr from New Hampshire

After act 1, When John is telling the story of what his son meant to him, despite not being able to see him, while "horizon variations" is playing in the background, is THE most beautiful thing I've ever heard.

Nov. 04 2012 10:24 PM

I love RadioLab, and maybe it's just the episodes I've caught, but I'm starting to wish you'd try to bring female voices in more often -- particularly on a subject like visual perception, since it's pretty well accepted that women and men differ in their degree of visual emphasis. The differences between John's and Zoltan's perspectives are interesting -- even if I personally find insulting John's assumption that his wife's primary concerns about his blindness might include losing the ability to "display" her beauty for him -- but it might've been even more interesting to explore whether there were gender differences in the experience of blindness.

Nov. 04 2012 02:43 PM

the dude's name's zoltan?

Nov. 04 2012 08:18 AM
jas0501 from Acton Ma.

I think the approach taken is dependent on the way the person thinks before loosing sight. If one says to someone "Don't think of a pink elephant" and then asks the person to explain the thought process some are decidedly non-visual. For example the words "pink elephant" fading to black.

Similarly asking some to imagine standing on a runway as a jet takes off, one would imagine most would imagine the sound of the roar of the jet engine. Some would see a jet and the caption "roar" coming off the engine and not imagine the sound.

The approach taken after loosing a faculty I expect would be biased by the way one absorbs and recalls the world.

Lawyers, musicians, accountants, painters, plumbers, cooks, stone masons, brain surgeons each would deal with loss of sight or hearing based on the aptitudes that guided them to their professions.

Each would have a hard time imagining how the other could think so differently. I for one would never think of a caption of "roar" for the imagined jet take off. But I have known people who do.

Nov. 02 2012 05:01 PM
RobynGee from Ventura, Ca

I have 20/15 vision, but since I was a young child I've had virtually no visual memory whatsoever. I still have the ability to tell you exactly which way to go, what to avoid bumping into and facial recognition when it's right in front of me, but I cannot recall an image in my mind. John's version of things sounds more like my own, but even when someone speaks the words "window", "door", "hallway", I don't have a visual image. I can look away from my own face in the mirror and not have a visual. I make emotional connections with sounds and touch. It's something I'm used to, for sure, but not something I would wish on a person. I'm terrified of when the people close to me start passing away as I'll never be able to remember their faces without photographs.

Nov. 01 2012 06:19 PM
Scott Currie from Bloomington, IN

You guys are doing great, and I think John's reality is much more fun. And rational.

My theory about the hold music for NASA is that they are using this:

The sound of Saturn, screaming radio waves into the ether. Check it out!

Oct. 30 2012 06:22 PM
Lee from Bristol, TN

Thanks for using my reading of the credits during the wedding reception of my beautiful new wife!

Oct. 29 2012 12:09 PM
Gary from Boise

Ok...i am suspect of John's being able to shut out visualization. For instance, when he says "Joshua is those little feet I feel kicking me in the chest" it is his way of painting a picture with words for us to relate what he is saying to us. But words, whether in the dark or not, have a visual representation in our brains. I have never seen Joshua's little feet myself, but I immediately made a representation in my mind of a pair of little legs jumping and kicking when I heard the description. I can understand John wanting to avoid the obsession with visual specifics such as how does someone look or how someones looks have changed, as that would be maddening. But to say that he is not visualizing anything is hard to swallow.

Oct. 28 2012 05:57 PM
Craig Fratrik from Cambridge, MA

Everyone should be hesitant to be confident on how other people thing, or see the world. See Feynman on counting.

Oct. 26 2012 05:19 PM
irvin Eisenberg from Montpelier, VT

It would be interesting to have a nero-scientist talk about the bodies different mapping systems. As humans we are very visual dominant but we forget that our experience of reality and awareness of the space we inhabit is the combinations of multiple body maps. Proprioception, maps where our joints are in relation to each other, and interception maps where our organs are. We also have sound and smell maps that while not as dominant in our perception of the human world are part of the experience. We also have a seance of gravity and where we are in gravity and through various other sense lumped into the category of touch we have maps that also tell us about our world.

I bat perceives the world primarily through sonar, a dog can perceive the world fairly well with small.

If one is to let go of seeing or imagining the visual world I wonder if that leaves space in the brain for other maps to become more dominant.

We are so visual that I am having trouble avoiding words like image, view, and, look when describing what it is we experience as the world.

Oct. 26 2012 01:53 PM
bob minder

G-d bless John Hull. Three of the wisest books I know, all by blind people. John Hull's "Touching the Rock: An experience of blindness" is one. And then there is the extraordinary autobiography of philosopher Jacques Lusseyran {And There Was Light} who as a sixteen year old blind man became one of the key figures in the French resistance movement and wound up spending time in the concentration camps. It's not just a great book for the heroism but for the "insight" on blindness. And then... make no mistake, she deserves her place in the canon of great figures of the 20th century though we often fall short of recognizing that she deserves it because she was such an intellectually remarkable woman. helen keller's "the world I live in" is one of the deepest works I have ever ready not just about being blind but about being alive... though i guess that's so for all three of these works. when my 14 year old daughter died i realized i was now like a blind person in relation to her and so took on this study of Insightful teachers who happen to be blind. bob minder

Oct. 26 2012 08:27 AM
Brett G from Los Angeles, CA

Does anyone know the piece of background music played at the start of the podcast from minute 1:00 to 1:45? It really sounds beautiful and I would love to know who it is.

Oct. 26 2012 01:08 AM
phildaj from Philadelphia

I'm curious as to why the "In The Dark" live show is being released in a series of shorts, and not all at once, like the first live show, "War of the Worlds." Or will the stories of "In The Dark" be reconstituted into a full episode later, like "The Soul Patch"?

Oct. 25 2012 02:00 PM

I'm going crazy bc I have already heard this and I don't know where or how

Oct. 24 2012 04:51 PM
Johan from Sweden

The piano song featured when he is talking about his son is Horizon Variations by Max Richter.

Oct. 24 2012 01:55 PM

What is the song used in this podcast??

Oct. 24 2012 01:47 PM

Over a one minute and-a-half of solicitation for donations to RadioLab, followed by what could have been an incredibly wonderful dialog between these two blind men, interrupted with gratuitous sound-effects, and the narrator's interjections in a kind of snide, "late night comedy show," voice, often off-topic. Way to go.

Oct. 24 2012 05:17 AM

Overall, I really liked this short. A little disappointed though. After it was over, I was wondering, "How does someone who was born blind see the world?"

Anyway, great job. I love it. Keep it up.

Oct. 24 2012 12:31 AM

I've been trying to put music used on Radiolab in a Spotify playlist. If you notice something used on the show, send me the song, and I'll add it.

Oct. 23 2012 09:24 PM
Dr. Spivey from Fairfax, VA

If Radiolab wants us to support them with whatever feels right, they should try never mentioning the topic again on the radio. Radiolab should instead, allow us to join the discussion by posting a few paragraphs on the "Radiolab Blogland". They've had an apparently acceptable measure of success with this approach after denigrating Hmong genocide survivors. Why change course now?

Oct. 23 2012 08:41 PM
Dean from Ft. Worth, Texas

I think John is making a futile argument here. He's basically saying that because he cannot directly experience new information through his visual sense organs, that visualization --an act of imagination and therefore an essential element of human perception-- is a lie. But how can you claim that any one perception is any less valid than another based solely on your own perception? That seems solipsistic, and inherently limiting in the sort of way that makes the world less... awe-inspiring. It turns almost everything human into a lie of sorts. On the other hand, I don't disagree with John's assertion that the world is so much more deep and meaningful than what can be discovered through sight alone.

Oct. 23 2012 05:41 PM
Theincredibleedibleleg from eh you know

Also, all the talk about truth, In what sense is the visual sense that we receive from our eyes true? If one takes into consideration, nagel's what it's like to be a bat. Or even takes into consideration that the mantis shrimp see's the world differently than we do. The truth of what we see with our eyes is complicated. In a sense, is what we see with our eyes more of a reality than what we construct with our mind's eyes? If you follow some sort of kantian idea of the mind and reality outside the mind, the answer has to be no. Given the plurality of perspectives from all the different animals, it's hard to argue for chauvinism for the human perspective. Consequently, i'd argue my mind deceives me no more or less than my eyes.

Oct. 23 2012 10:44 AM
Theincredibleedibleleg from chicago.

He claims to no longer visualize things. I'm trying to imagine what that would be like. In essence, I'm Like a parlor store phenomenologist. ( just in case you're not a fan, for more on phenomenology,

Imagine in your mind's eye another person, it can be anyone. Can you visualize him? awesome, me too. Now imagine, talking to that person, but take away all visual references to that person. Can you do that? I can't do it. At the very least, I find myself picking random visual objects, and designating those objects as representations for the person. Like I'll pick the word, boy, and imagine it as a signifier of the other person.

-borrowed, but not stolen.

Oct. 23 2012 10:21 AM
Dark Farmer

I think I agree with John, why bother with sight when it's gone? All that's left is the slowly breaking down memories of sight. It's just a distraction from reality, focus on what you have. No normal sighted person spends their time trying to imagine the world sensed in a sense they don't have.

Oct. 23 2012 07:33 AM

Is this another excerpt from a full length podcast?

Oct. 23 2012 06:25 AM

haha ooo, guys, you are soo cute and hilarious - am goin' writtin' you an email

Oct. 23 2012 05:11 AM

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