Oct 22, 2012

Seeing in the Dark

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.

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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JAD ABUMRAD: Well, let's just see what happens. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab.


ROBERT: The podcast.


JAD: And before we get to today's podcast, a brief message. Okay, so Radiolab is listener supported, right? You know this. So the show only really happens when you all listening right now come together and help us pay for it. You know, the reporters, the producers, the bandwidth costs, which are significant, help us pay for that stuff so we can keep pushing this podcast out into the world for free and keep telling you stories that move you, challenge you, make you think. If you've helped us out in the past, thank you, you rock. If you haven't helped us in the past, or maybe if you've helped us in the past and want to re-up, think about going to our website Radiolab.org and clicking on that blue support button. You'll see it on the right side of the page. Click on that button and, you know, give whatever makes sense, whatever feels right. And thanks.


ROBERT: We will make wonderful use of that money.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: To prove it to you, or at least to make you our best offer, we are now going to tell you a story. This one comes from Oliver Sacks, the neuroscientist, who often shares sources with us. In this case, he told us about two people.


JAD: And we ended up telling this story live on stage at UCLA's Royce Hall. It's part of our show, In The Dark.


ROBERT: It's in the middle of our show, so just settle back and here we go.


ROBERT: We've talked about the journey from darkness to light and how we got eyes and we can see. So let's go the opposite direction. We know there are people who see and then go blind, and then go back into the darkness. Or do they?




ROBERT: I want to introduce you to someone.


PAT WALTERS: Hello, John?


JOHN HULL: Hello, this is John Hull.


PAT: Hi John. This is Pat Walters. We have been emailing.


ROBERT: I had our producer Pat Walters get John Hull into a studio.


JOHN HULL: Oh, Pat! I for some reason imagined you as a woman called Patricia. [laughs]


ROBERT: Yeah, this happens to Pat all the time. So so many of his blind dates end just suddenly. Anyway, John Hull is a theory -- theology professor in England and he is blind. But he hasn't always been blind.


JOHN HULL: No. No, I was born with a condition, an inherited condition, and I developed cataract when I was a boy of 13.


ROBERT: And then things got cloudy in ...?


JOHN HULL: Exactly. A milky whiteness.


ROBERT: But it happened slowly. At first, his life really wasn't bad at all. He lived a pretty normal existence. He went to college, he got married, he had kids. But eventually, cataracts developed and they got worse. It was gradual, but over the years his world kept getting darker and then darker and darker, until when he was 35 his world went totally dark.


JOHN HULL: When I lost my sight, I suffered a lot from boredom.




JOHN HULL: You know, I just didn't know what to think about. I mean, when you're sighted you've always got something to think about. You know, the waves are rising and falling on the beach. The girls are walking past. There's always something. But when you're blind, what do you think about? What fills your mind? That was a problem for me at first.


ROBERT: But one night at a party with his wife Marilyn, something happened that got him thinking.


JOHN HULL: I was at a party, and an old friend came up to me and said, "John, there's something I think you should know." I said, "What is it?" He said, "I think you should know that Marilyn is looking particularly beautiful tonight."


ROBERT: [laughs]


JOHN HULL: Now I felt, how dare this man put his eyes on my wife and have the cheek to come and tell me that he thinks she's beautiful, huh? He went on to say, "In a way John, you're fortunate. To you, she will always be as beautiful as the day you married her." Now I told Marilyn that story after the party was over. She said, "Some of my female friends are telling me the same thing. One of them said the other day, you know Marilyn, in a way you are -- you are fortunate. John will never see those little gray hairs."


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


JOHN HULL: "Those little wrinkles." and then I thought, Robert, what is it like to be a beautiful woman and not to be able to display yourself to the man you love, huh?




JOHN HULL: No point in getting new clothes, no point in going to the hairdresser. Okay there's perfume, but half the time the bastard doesn't notice.


ROBERT: [laughs]


JOHN HULL: You see what I mean? Our worlds were becoming so profoundly different. I had to say to myself -- and this is the crux of my experience -- how am I to live with this woman? Am I to live in nostalgic memory every time I'm with her? And I said no, I will not live in nostalgia. I will live with this woman as a living sighted woman, I as a living blind man. We will live together in the present moment. We will accept each other as we are across the abyss which divides us.


JAD: But how exactly does he do that?


ROBERT: Well, he didn't want to picture his wife as she used to be, you know, 20 years ago. So he made a willful and conscious decision to stop picturing her all together.


JOHN HULL: That was how I faced the future as a blind man.


ROBERT: He decided that he would live without pictures at all. So any time a picture would pop into his head, he would consciously push it away. And this became his routine.


JOHN HULL: When I meet a new person, I don't any longer wonder what they look like. I don't know what my house looks like.


ROBERT: You don't picture corridors, rooms, windows?


JOHN HULL: It's funny how much the visual memories are attached to those words. Even as you say "corridor," I can see it going away in front of me with its perspectives disappearing.




JOHN HULL: And yet when I'm walking along a corridor. I don't have that picture.




JOHN HULL: When I'm standing in front of a window, I don't have that picture.


ROBERT: When you are talking to your kids ...




ROBERT: Do you see them? Or what's going on?


JOHN HULL: I don't see them. I hear them. I feel them. But I have no idea, frankly, what they look like. See, it's more profound than that, Robert. I have to try to remember what you mean by "look like." I've not only lost the contents of that concept, I've lost the concept.


ROBERT: And he says he's lost it by choice.


JAD: Which is strange. So he says he chooses not to see his wife or his kids.


ROBERT: Yeah, because he says, "You know, all in all what I'm doing here is I'm just honoring the truth. And the truth is I can't really know what my wife looks like. I could put my hand on her face and try to feel my way across, but any image that I conjure up wouldn't be real, really. Wouldn't have all the details. In effect, it would be a lie. And when it comes to my wife, I can't bear the idea of a lie." So ...


JAD: I just can't imagine, though, not wanting to imagine your wife's face.


ROBERT: Well, other blind people obviously do this differently. And in fact when John wrote a book about this stuff, he heard from a bunch of other blind people who said, you know, this makes very little sense. In fact, it's just ridiculous.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Yeah. Yeah, that's right.


ROBERT: So meet Zoltan Torey.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Z-O-L-T-A-N. It's a Hungarian name. Zoltan Torey. And I'm a clinical psychologist.


ROBERT: And like John, Zoltan was not born blind. He had an accident. He was working in a factory.


ZOLTAN TOREY: It was a battery factory.


ROBERT: And he was getting this huge drum of acid down from a shelf.


ZOLTAN TOREY: And it had a plug which was -- the screw was worn away on that plug, and it -- when I was undoing it, it just flew open and the whole damned 44 gallons poured out into -- more or less into my face.


ROBERT: Oh my heavens!


ROBERT: And the acid burned his face and then it went into his throat. And it burned his vocal cords, and of course it went into his eyes.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Almost immediately, the acid began to eat itself into the cornea.


ROBERT: Within minutes ...


ZOLTAN TOREY: This ghastly, charcoal-gray fog was so thick that I really couldn't find my way anywhere.


ROBERT: Once Zoltan was out of the hospital and learning to live as a blind person, he says ...


ZOLTAN TOREY: I was advised to concentrate on touch and on hearing and all the other senses and forget about sight. But this was not acceptable to me.


ROBERT: Because for Zoltan, images were essential. For one thing, his dad had been a filmmaker.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Head of motion picture studios.


ROBERT: And when Zoltan was a boy, his dad would give him movie scripts.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Movie scripts to read and to visualize and to memorize.


ROBERT: And to him, looking at scripts and imagining them in his head, that was his form of play. So when Zoltan lost his sight he thought, "Well, I'm gonna do now what I used to do then with the scripts. I may not be able to see the world anymore, but I can certainly imagine the world."


ZOLTAN TOREY: And I decided to repopulate the world with images and reconstruct reality for myself.


ROBERT: So now when Zoltan walks into a room and he puts his hand on a couch or chairs or table ...


ZOLTAN TOREY: I see the furniture correctly in the manner in which you would see it from the corner of your eye.


ROBERT: He paints pictures of everything that he touches, everything that he hears, even smells in a room help him visualize the room.


ZOLTAN TOREY: The smell of the place would tell me about cleanliness or the use of the place. The echo would give me an estimation of windows and open spaces and alcoves. I really live with a kind of continuously-produced film strip.


ROBERT: And Zoltan says, "I am now so good at this kind of thing, so good at recreating the world in my Technicolor head," that he believes that what he sees up here is actually and literally and verifiably in the world, and he says he would risk his life and does risk his life daily on this proposition.


JAD: He would risk his life on it?


ROBERT: That's what he said.


JAD: What does that mean?


ROBERT: Well, he has a house. It's a multi-storey house. And there's some tiles on the roof that periodically need replacing. And, you know, to him it doesn't matter whether he fixes it nighttime or daytime because he's blind, so he'll -- he'll go up on the roof, and he has this idea that just by touch in the middle of the night and careful feeling and remembering, he can do what he has to do.


ZOLTAN TOREY: I thought, "Hell, why shouldn't I try to do this?" First I repaired the guttering, and then large sections of the roof.


ROBERT: Well, wait a second. You're -- you're blind though, right? You're totally blind.




ROBERT: So then ...


ZOLTAN TOREY: Totally, totally blind.


ROBERT: Well then, what are you doing on a roof is my question?


ZOLTAN TOREY: Well, this is what my neighbors asked. They thought I was crazy, you know?


ROBERT: All right, so now here we have two very different ways of being blind. You got one guy who fills his mind with pictures, vivid, vivid, vivid pictures, and the other guy says, "I won't do that. I think the only way to live in the world honestly is to choose -- it's a kind of double blindness, really." Not only are you dark on the outside, you go dark on the inside as well. So we wondered, wouldn't it be, like, more than cool to get these two guys together to duke it out, not to mention how politically incorrect that would be. So we decided to put them together by phone. So even though one of them works and lives in the United Kingdom and the other in Australia, we worked through the very radical time differences and we brought them together.


JOHN HULL: Can you hear me?


ZOLTAN TOREY: Yes, I can hear you.


JOHN HULL: We've done it. Hooray!


ZOLTAN TOREY: Yes, hooray.


ROBERT: Wow. Okay.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Good, good, good, good.


ROBERT: So here's what I'd like to do. Zoltan, can you just describe, since you're sitting there with your wife, what you know about her face?


ZOLTAN TOREY: Well, this is not a problem at all. I've known her for, what, 40-50 years now? And just through the touch, it is very, very easy to reconstruct her mouth and her turned-up nose and smile and her curly hair and ears. It's like a living image.


JOHN HULL: But tell me, when was the last time you actually saw her face with your eyes?


ZOLTAN TOREY: I never saw her face with my eyes.




ZOLTAN TOREY: Never. No, I met her only about five, six years after I lost my sight.




ZOLTAN TOREY: But this doesn't matter, John. This doesn't matter at all. The reconstruction is so vivid for me, I actually see it.


JOHN HULL: Well, I'm just lost for words. I -- Zoltan tell me, are you totally blind?




JOHN HULL: No light sensation?


ZOLTAN TOREY: None whatsoever.


JOHN HULL: Your wife's eyes, what color are they?




JOHN HULL: Is that ...


ZOLTAN TOREY: Slightly flecked with little yellow spots in it. And they are also large, expressive.


JOHN HULL: She tells you her eyes are expressive.


ZOLTAN TOREY: No, no, no, no, no, John. There's more to it than that. I have years and years and years worth of experience, and other people's responses get all factored into the construction of a complex image.


JOHN HULL: But you cannot actually literally see her, you can only imagine that you can see her, so why does it matter?


ZOLTAN TOREY: Because emotionally, we do not react and cannot react properly to things that we cannot visualize. The whole human organism is constructed to react to pictures.


JAD: Yeah, I think he has -- he has a point when he says that.


ROBERT: What do you mean?


JAD: Well, because I can't -- if I think about it, I can't actually imagine having a feeling without a picture first.


ROBERT: Well, I can help you out. "I'm cold," I say. You don't have to see, like, icicles coming off my nose, you know that cold -- you know what it means without -- or this is a hard table. You don't need to see me hit it with a mallet.


JAD: No, I -- that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about relationships. Like, don't you actually, in order to have a relationship with somebody, don't you have to first imagine them as a being in the world with a form that you can then attach your feelings to?


ROBERT: Well, only very vaguely. I mean, I'm sure there's a lot of you out there who listen to Radiolab if you do and heard it for a while, and you had a vague sense of who was talking what they looked like, but it wasn't important. It didn't ...


JAD: I think it was important. I don't think they had this -- this image. I sort of hope they didn't, in a way. But -- but I think you -- I mean, you have to have some picture. I mean why is it, that quintessential experience when you listen to the radio and then suddenly you see the person on the radio and you're like, [gasp], you know? Like, that's -- that's a classic experience. And I think it's because in that moment you realize you had been picturing somebody, and you have to picture that person in order to relate to them.


ROBERT: You have to?


JAD: Yeah, you can't relate to a blank.


ROBERT: Well, John would say that you're being a little narrow-minded, and that is exactly what he said to Zoltan.


JOHN HULL: Zoltan, you are trying to impose a visual totalitarianism upon the human brain.


ZOLTAN TOREY: No, no, no, no, John, It isn't I. We are visual creatures.


JOHN HULL: Blind people are not visual creatures.


ZOLTAN TOREY: Oh, come on. Come on, John. You said that you lost the visual world. Actually, I think that you just let it go. Now, I ...


JOHN HULL: I didn't just let it go, I extinguished it for the sake of a greater reality.


JAD: What is the greater reality, though?


ROBERT: John, he's gotten onto the truth.


JAD: Oh, come on, though. That's not -- that's like accountants' version of truth. That's not a real truth.


ROBERT: Well ...


JAD: If a truth is blank, then why would it be a greater reality than the opposite? A fantasy or whatever, a lie perhaps, but at least it allows you to be in the world with other people.


ROBERT: Oh, a lie. So you find a lie is a useful standard for how ...?


JAD: No. I just mean you want to live in the world, and you want to connect and be -- okay.




JAD: Supposing he does it how he says he does ...




JAD: Like, how do you even do that? How do you connect with something or someone that is absent, that is intentionally held as a blank? How do you do it?


ROBERT: Well, you know, that is actually a hard question. I couldn't quite figure it out for myself. So -- so I asked him.


JOHN HULL: It's quite a difficult thing to describe. When our little boy Joshua, when he was about a year, 12 months old, 15 months maybe, my wife and I were at home and we had a visitor. Marilyn said to me -- that's my wife, she said to me, "Tell me darling, what does Joshua look like?" I had to say, "Darling, you know he doesn't look like anything to me." She said, "Yes, yes. But what does Joshua mean to you?" And I said, "Well, Joshua to me is that giggling, thrilling, jumping, kicking bundle of boyhood that I throw over my shoulder. Joshua's those little feet that kick me in the chest. He's that beautiful, warm face that I lay my hand on when he's asleep."


ROBERT: And that is how John does it. That is John's way.


JAD: So that was from our performance live at UCLA's Royce Hall of our live show In The Dark. And one of our not-so-secret missions again in this podcast is to ask you to help us pay for Radiolab to help support this show so that we can continue to give you stories like what you just heard, where you hear, like, two completely different viewpoints that are both totally valid, colliding. And for me, I feel like those kinds of collisions make the world an interesting place.


ROBERT: That's the cool thing is that in doing this kind of work, you can get very rich very quickly by simply exploring. And that's why we'd like to invite you to help us out just a bit.


JAD: Yeah, go to Radiolab.org, click that "support" button. And here's an added sweetener. So we've been touring with this guy Demetri Martin. Hilarious comedian. He sort of helped us create the In The Dark show. If you kick in $75 to help us make Radiolab, we will send you his new CD which is so freaking funny.


ROBERT: It's called I think, what, Stand-Up Comedian? Is that what he calls it?


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: Yeah. Okay.


JAD: We're gonna give you a taste right here.


ROBERT: This is Demetri Martin.


DEMETRI MARTIN: It's weird when you introduce somebody that you say, like, "This is," and then their name. You know, like, "This is Frank." It sounds pretty normal, but when you think about it, "This?" Walk up with a person and be like, "Hey guys, this -- this stuff right here is Frank." "Excuse me. What is that?" "This? This is Frank." "Oh, that's what that is. Jesus!" I guess it should be, "He is Frank," but that sounds even weirder. You can't walk up with somebody and go, "Hey, he's Frank. Take it away, Frank."


DEMETRI MARTIN: It's like when you call somebody on the phone, you know? They say, "Hello?" You have to say, "This is." "Hello?" "This is Demetri." Can't be like, "Hello?" "I am Demetri." "What?" "I am Demetri. Take me to your leader." But then if you go up to someone in person the rule flips. Then it's the exact opposite actually, you know? If I walk up to you, then I have to say "Hi. I am Demetri." I can't walk up to you and go, "This is Demetri. You like? This?" This is an idiot. Okay, he's going.


ROBERT: [laughs] You know, I -- could we -- can we just do one more?


DEMETRI MARTIN: I like people watching. Mostly this one woman. Yeah, I'm doing them one at a time. From behind bushes and stuff, you know?


DEMETRI MARTIN: I think surprise parties are weird because people jump up and they yell the word "Surprise" at the party. I came home to my house and you guys emerged from my furniture. You don't have to tell me how to feel. I don't need, like, a hint from the group, you know? It's not like if you yell out another feeling I'm gonna have that one instead. I come home and everybody jumps up, "Confidence!" Oh, all right. Yeah! Damn, right, I feel great! Got to spend an hour at the party answering questions like, "Hey, so were you really confident when we jumped up and yelled out 'Confidence?'" "Yeah, I wasn't faking. I had no idea. I was confident. I mean, I came in feeling kind of lousy about myself and then I felt, yeah, really self-assured. It's a great confidence party. I'm so glad you guys threw it for me."


DEMETRI MARTIN: Birds are one of the only other creatures who make their own houses, and they're one of the only creatures we make houses for. That is arrogant! What's that bird? That's a house? That's your house, huh? That's like a [BLEEP] patio at best. Come on. It's just some sticks in a circle. This is embarrassing. You want a house? Tell you what. I'll make you a house. It'll be like a little human house. There, a tiny little person house for you. I know you can fly, but I'm putting a roof on it. Tough [BLEEP]. Deal with it. Little hole that's too small for your body to try to get in and out of. Birds are in the house like, "I feel ridiculous. The other animals think we're trying to be little people. This is just really pathetic." "Shut up, Louis. It's a free house."


JAD: So for $75, you can get that CD. That's our way of kind of saying thanks for helping to support the making of Radiolab. When you pledge money, of course, it comes back to you in the form of, you know, more stories like the story just heard.


ROBERT: Or here's your alternate option. For the same $75, we will enroll you in something we call Lab Partners. Now explain to them what Lab Partners are.


JAD: It's a -- hmm. How do you think of it? It's like a -- you go to a certain part of the website, you get a special code, you go there, you log on, it's very secret, it's very private. And you get special things that nobody else gets, like videos, like music, like digital art posters.


ROBERT: We even send you actually a video of Demetri Martin in our show doing his ...


JAD: Yes! Doing stand-up.


ROBERT: Which is pretty wonderful.


JAD: And it is exclusive to Lab Partners. So break it down. What have we learned so far?




JAD: 75 bucks gets you Demetri on a CD.




JAD: Or 75 bucks gets you a Lab Partners membership where you can see Demetri on stage with your eyeballs.


ROBERT: Well, let me add one more thing. If you make a gift of whatever amount, doesn't have to be anything, actually. If you just give us your good will but you do it on our website before 4 p.m. on Monday, October 29, 2012. That's Eastern Standard Time. If you give us some money before then, you're automatically entered in a contest where you could win an iPad. So there you have it. The iPad could be yours just if you give us anything.


JAD: Go to Radiolab.org, click on that "Support" button. Thanks. I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: Thank you for listening and, we hope, giving.


[LEE: This is Lee Jones. And I'm in Bristol, Tennessee, and I just got married. I'm at my wedding reception. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]


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