Monday, April 25, 2011

Was Helen Keller Able to Experience Color?

I was having a conversation with my girlfriend a few days ago about a quote on color by Helen Keller.  It made both of us feel like Helen Keller had a handle on and was able to experience color, even if it was just an abstract form to her.  I also wonder further more, is anyone who became blind early in life able to experience color?

It would seem this is a possibility since I can close my eyes and image red.  Not just a red tricycle, but red in a pure form.  So we can represent color without the necessity of visual stimulation, which rules out the absolute necessity of the eyes.  Secondly, have you ever seen red?  Just all and only red?  This is also not possible.  We can form an abstract representation of something which we have never seen before, and are not able to see in the first place.  This rules out the necessity of pure memory for the representation of color. So there must be a structure in the brain that enables us to view color and other things without previous experience, and visual aid.

After doing some research on Helen Keller, I learned that she became deaf-blind at 19 months of age, from a disease, maybe the scarlet fever.  Since infants can distinguish between colors as early as the age of 2 months, Keller certainly had  much previous experience with color. So since she was subject to so much experience of color, was she able to retain it?

The problem I found was that even though she was being subject to colors for around 17 months of her life, sensory memory and short term memory of the colors she saw and experienced were not retained.
Further research on the visual cortex involved in visual imaging suggests also that she did not experience color in any way. While developing, children who become blind before the age of five are not able to exercise the visual cortex enough for it to keep it's integrity and maintain the ability to form images without sight.

Originally, I hypothesized that while our eyes are our primary and almost sole source of color, there must have been an structure in the brain involved in our mental representations of it explaining why we can think of pure red, without applying it to some object.  This structure would be the visual cortex, and since it degenerates past functioning ability if a child becomes blind before the age of 5, one must have became blind much after the age of even 7 for it to retain it's ability and have mental visual representations.

I have been forced to conclude that while Helen Keller may have been able to describe color in amazing ways, she and those who became blind early in life are not able to form abstract representations of color. This ability relies on the use of the visual cortex, and those privileged enough to have it's use at their disposal.

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