Second Sight: Adventures in Sensory Deprivation

Visions, astral projection, synesthesia. Typically the purview of certain psychoactive drugs, they became mine this week at the cost of my sight.

It started when I managed to scrape a good deal of my cornea off by simply opening my eyes one morning and, given the choice between blurry vision accompanied by unbearably mind numbing pain and keeping my eyes shut with merely ridiculous pain, I chose the latter. But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that the combination of constant pain and temporary blindness put my brain into an altered state. During cab rides to the ER, the sounds and smells of New York City would spin my head in so many directions that, when I got a rundown of the real street details, I’d come close to arguing. (You mean we aren’t in a caravan surrounded by unicyclists spinning cotton candy into a massive trapeze?) Lucid dreams with motorized whimsy like Grrr or Lovey Vice City.

The big shock, though, came when Charles Mingus went synesthetic on me. It happened back home during the classic “Better Git It In Your Soul” (via Christian McBride). I heard the opening refrain but then it went silent. And where the horns were supposed to come in (I know the song well), somehow I saw horns instead of hearing them — one after the other, floating like cardboard cutouts, each playing and fading and floating away, the slightly atonal ones (this is Mingus after all) a little offset from the rest. And when the second refrain came, all the sound came rushing back and a massive two-dimensional wooden ship appeared behind the horns, holding them afloat at sea. This happened over and over throughout the song as new elements of the scene were introduced: sound replaced by visuals, visuals replaced by sound. (The closest thing I can figure is War Photographer, but that doesn’t quite capture it.)

The week was filled with these kinds of mind’s eye moments — the sort I thought I’d left behind in childhood, when I confused dreams with waking life all the time. Eyes wide shut like Stéphane. It reminds of the visions Lilly’s isolation tank could induce. And it makes me wonder how the sightless perceive the world; what I might learn from them.

Today was the first day I went outside with my eyes open in almost a week. When I stopped being able to see, the weather was dark, brooding, confining. Stepping outside today, all I saw were those first warm sun rays pouring down onto Manhattan neighborhood streets and the newly lit street life rising up to meet it. Damn I love New York in summer. And I’m so thankful I can see again.

We last wrote about sight loss in Game Changing Technology.

Update: Find more discussion of sensory impairment and creativity on 9rules.

The gory details: I’ve had these corneal abrasions before (but first time for the left eye) so that put my mind more at ease than it might have been otherwise. Still, multiple emergency room visits in a weekend are never fun and Q gets all the credit for managing the unglamorous parts of this episode of cornea canyon (read uncontrollable sobbing at 3am) with patience and style. Image via the always awesome kozyndan.

7 Responses to “Second Sight: Adventures in Sensory Deprivation”

  1. 1 jesse


    on many levels, wow.

    glad you’re doing well, and that you got a chance to see cardboard mingus.

  2. 2 Jason

    Thanks, man. The week was interesting in ways I didn’t expect. Still, I’ll be happy not to go through that again. I’ll see if I can get my sensory depravation kicks another way. :-)

  3. 3 Judy

    OK. Under “Fresh Bookmarks,” I feel like I must be pretty slow, but I don’t get the Nezeril ad thing. Plz explain! Also, if you ever hear about a book about the exhibit “Design for the other 90%,” I’d like to know about it.

  4. 4 Jason

    Nezeril: You read all the words wrong until you put Nezeril in your eyes, then you can see perfectly! :-)

    We hope to hit the 90% Design exhibit this weekend. Will report back. In the meantime, there’s an interview here.

  5. 5 Aparna Pappu

    Oh my gosh – I had no idea – hope you are better – as you can see I am reading your blog in a totally random order or I would have said something in my email to you. The cab ride sounds psychedelic (minus all the hassle of paying for drugs and what not). Your ability to actually go beyond the pain and visualize and hear things from within amaze me. I would have been a pathetic boring sobbing mess. Stay well and stop doing things to your eyes man!

  6. 6 Jason

    Thanks! Yeah, I’m better now. I was able to relax a bit during the whole ordeal since I’d been through it before and at least had some idea how it would go. Still, it was really freaking painful and I did turn into that pathetic sobbing mess more times than I’d like to admit. ;-)

  1. 1 Hostsoft Network Blog » Blog Archive » Fewer Senses = More Creativity?

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