By Robert Kurson
Crashing Through is the story of Mike May who regained sight after a successful corneal transplant after being blind (light perception in one eye) for 40 years. It is a dramatic example of the differences between sight (seeing something somewhere) and vision (receiving information from the world to guide our movements and thinking). Much of the book is a page-turner. Mike May was a very successful blind person with a full life including having set the world speed skiing record for blind skiers at 65 mph. He was also very good at echolocation* and used this, a cane, and a dog to go almost everywhere.
The surgery, which had been performed less than 40 times, involves first transplanting corneal epithelial stem cells from a donor cornea around the rim of the recipient’s cornea and then undergoing a corneal transplant months later from a second donor if the stem cells take. Mike May was not blind from birth but having lost his vision at age 3, he did not remember vision other than a faint memory of red. He did not feel deprived and used “imagination, reality, and the power of other’s passions to understand much of visual beauty”.
When May found out about the possibility of having a different kind of surgery (there had been a few unsuccessful attempts in his youth) it took him a long time to decide. He did not feel that he was missing anything, but he had always been one to “crash through” to the next opportunity and challenge. Despite his crash through approach to life, he hesitated due to his understanding that “By all accounts, vision was among the most dramatic and fundamental aspects of a sighted person’s life, basic to one’s self-conception.” If the surgery was successful, he could not predict how his life might be changed.
The book goes from becoming a page-turner story to providing page-turning insights after May has the surgery. There is a section at the end which tells about the perceptual aspects and scientific aspects of visual information processing and visual development. While Mike May is at one extreme, these skills, and each of us as individuals, are on a continuum. Much of what he describes is like the experiences of people with ADD, sensory integration disorder, or autism “because he sensed that he could not pay attention to feelings and to this new world at the same time, that if he were to think, the images would disappear, that the images required more than just his eye for their existence, they required all of him, and he knew that he didn’t want those images to go away, even if it meant postponing the explosions of joy he could feel bubbling underneath.” “’It is unrelenting,’ he thought to himself. ‘It’s thrilling, but I’m exhausted.’”
May has difficulty with faces similar to what Daniel Tamment tells us is his experience as someone who is an autistic savant in Born on a Blue Day. Most of us do not appreciate the volume of information emanating from a “talking head” because it is natural for us. Many children with autism look at faces out of the corner of their eye to reduce their information overload. “When the women spoke their heads bobbed, their lips flapped, their hands gestured. This bedlam at once amused and distracted him, and try as he might he could not keep track of what they were saying so long as their faces ran spastic like that, and he wondered, even as he continued to smile pleasantly at their stories, how they could keep track themselves of even a word that came from such facial commotion.” “It is really hard work. It seems like I have to process every little thing consciously to understand what I’m seeing. Everything is interesting to me, but sometimes it feels like I can’t do anything in peace.” “I think that the best way I can describe it is that, for me, trying to see feels like trying to speak in a foreign language.”
After the surgery, May needed to learn to see. One eye had been removed. Some aspects of vision like color and motion seemed to work automatically, but for most aspects of vision, “the touch seemed to electrify the visual image and make it easier to understand.” “For him, context and expectation were everything; they literally produced better vision.”
His form vision and visual acuity were very poor and remained so. Letters and reading were particularly difficult. “May got the next three letters right. But by the time he’d come to the last letter, Y, he could not remember the first three, forcing him to start again.” How many children do we know who seem to operate this way? Even for those who work with children all the time, it can still be difficult to understand what they are experiencing and their frustrations. Marilyn Jager Adams has some important statements about this in her book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. “If it takes more than a moment to resolve the visual identities of successive letters in a word, then the stimulation of the visual recognition unit for the first will have dissipated by the time that the second has been turned on. Unless the units are active at the same time, there is no way for the system to learn about the important conjoint occurrence of their letters.” And “An extremely important role of the interletter associations is that they help us to encode the proper order of the letters we see. Although the visual system is quite fast and accurate at processing item information (such as the identities of the individual letters of a word), it is both slow and sloppy about processing their spatial location.”
This is a dramatic example of how a limited definition of vision is inadequate and inaccurate. May can more clearly explain his experience because he has experienced it two ways. “Recent advances in the ability to measure specific kinds of brain activity confirm that knowledge and vision are highly related. It is now thought that more than a third of the human brain is involved with vision, an indication of the magnitude of the task.”