Blog Post

Running Like Kant

I've written often about how the highlight of this magical year onleave, this year of Making Like Kant, has been my three-mile walks inthe circuit around the WaDu in Duke Forest with my friend and colleague Priscilla. It is a trail of dips andrises, of bridges and gates, of tree stumps and puddles, of manypeople, kids, dogs, some walking clockwise, some counterclockwise. Often on our walks we see two astonishingly graceful runners. Theylook professional, long strides, wonderful posture, beautifully fit. They run with what is clearly friendship, trust, and confidence, inthemselves and one another. I always smile when I see them as theyexemplify vigor and health. They always smile back. The front runner,I should mention, happens to be blind.


Since part of the study I'm writing this year is about how the senses are defined as discrete and very specific to a culture from birth on, that part of learning the world is moving from synesthesia to a strict demarcation and regulation of what sense goes with what ("I see you" "I hear the bell" "I taste the apple" "I touch the velvet" and "I smell the flower"), these two runners have intrigued me all year. I've read extensively about those without sight who are able to do extraordinary things. And I've read a lot in the science of "blindsight," the ability to navigate through and between objects even if one is visually blind.


And, having lived a long time in Japan, I know that how we divide up the senses is not the way other cultures do. In the West, we are far more rigid about sensory segregation than other cultures, even though anyone who has ever had a cold knows, for example, that you taste things differently when you cannot smell them. In the West, we regulate and regularize a lot about our bodies , reinforcing the Enlightment idea that the body is something that can be controlled by the mind, that must be controlled by the mind. (As I wrote in an earlier post, "Making Like Kant," it was part of my job, while teaching in Japan many years ago, to try to explain to my brilliant students at one of Japan's most rigorous and prestigious women's colleges, how, exactly, we Westerners could say where "body" ended and "mind" began, and what, exactly, was the relationship between "mind" and "brain." I guess I'm still trying to explain and understand that decades later . . . ) ("Making Like Kant":


In any case, today the New York Times had an article "Blind, Yet Seeing: The Brain's Subconscious Visual Sense" about blindsight and proprieception, echolocation, and other senses in those who have no evidence of visual activity in the cortex. In the final chapter of my book, I have several "experiments" that can be performed by those who are still relunctant to accept my model of the plastic, nonhierarchical, non-localized, interactive brain. One of them involves having an opthamologist provide you with a blindfold that shuts out 100% of the light coming into the visual cortex. If even 1% comes in, this experiment does not work because the visual cortex is hungry and grabs any light it can. But in total darkness, exciting things happen to us who have little experience of the world without sight. Within a matter of hours, echolocation improves and so does proprieception and so does hearing, touch, taste, and, especially, smell. As a culture, the West is notably poor at attending to smell. We don't study it nearly as much as we do other senses and, when we do, it is typically as a specialization (a "nose" as in perfume or wine). Smell is one of those "bad" senses that we teach children to ignore and bodily smells are something children are taught to control and ignore when they sense them coming from others. (Ask someone in the West, "Did you hear that?" and they will answer, "No, I didn't" and they'll stop and listen carefully so they might hear it again, even if the sound has past. Ask someone, "Do you smell that?" and you are likely to get an irritated "I don't smell anything" as if you are a bit daft. Try it. I'm not making this up. That's how prohibition works in a culture, through pushing it away or disavowal. Proscription is another sign of how senses are cultural as well as physiological.) My favorite line in this New York Times piece is in reference to a person who is positive he won't be able to navigate an obstacle course now that he has had a stroke that has caused blindness: ?The more educated people are,? Dr. de Gelder said, ?in myexperience, the less likely they are to believe they have theseresources that they are not aware of to avoid obstacles. And this was avery educated person.? The stroke patient is astonished to find he can walk through a course of objects without hitting them.


What else can we do if we stop believing we cannot do it?  That is the question I am trying to answer, along with the ones put to me by my Japanese students (in the largest sense) of mind, body, brain, and culture. What do our categories mean for how we learn and for all that we miss, whether we'rewalking through the woods or in a meeting with other executives or entrusting the millions of dollars from our philanthropic foundation to an honorable friend (supposedly). All that.


It has been a thrilling investigation that has taken me many places this year. My walks with Priscilla, as I've said before, are chock full of ideas, hers and mine. We are funny walkers. We talk a lot and we talk loudly. We have a similar style and so we listen, then we interrupt, then we deviate and go off on a tangent, and then we come back, and some times it is topics she initiates and sometimes I do, and it is as  uneven a mental path as the one beneath our feet. We pass many people on this walk and I've thought it would be an interesting book (another time, in the future) to write about the lives of people I meet on this path. There are many lives, and sometimes you can see those lives palpably on the faces we meet, some happy, some tragic, some luxuriating in the soundsightsmelltouchtaste of the woods on a beautiful afternoon, some pleading with the forest to give them something to help with a hurt, some simply out for exercise, others looking for respite from work or the Internet, and others, like Priscilla and me, "making like Kant."


And then there are those two runners. First, it touches my heart that they touch as they run. Another feature of Western culture is we have lots of prohibitions about touch, especially between men, especially heterosexual men. But even mothers and newborn infants in our culture touch less than in any other culture that has been studied. Our babies cry more and are touched less. (Hmmm . . . perhaps there's a connection?) Our babies also tend to learn nouns faster than any other culture that has been studied by linguists (although we are a bit slow with process-verbs and interactive, relationship verbs). I think all of this is connected, it is how we chart our world, its values and its "under-values" (i.e. that which it chooses to ignore or denie). And, in recent decades, we have blamed the outcomes of our instruction on evolutionary processes or on hardwired brain biology. Really? I don't happen to think so.


But my blog has now come full circle, back to its beginning. Those two runners, one of them with sight and one without, happen to be friends of friends. I told Priscilla, on our most recent walk, a seventy-degree day in December where these two fit men ran towards us and swept by us shirtless, gloriously luxuriating in surprising spring in the midst of winter, that I would love to meet them, to talk to them about what they talk about as they run, how they do what they do, the amazing collaboration of talents as they run over this notably uneven forest path, and what is clearly a close friendship and trust and choreography that is so beautiful it takes my breath away whenever I see them. She happened to know that the runner who is blind also runs with our friend David, another marathoner. I emailed David, who emailed Curt who emailed me, and, in the new year, I will be interviewing Curt and Jeff, these two remarkable human beings who run together through the forest at top speed. Their openness to my solicitation--to experience--is exactly what I observe in them when they sail past Priscilla and me.


After I talk with them, they hope to go for a run. I wrote Priscilla this morning to see if she might be free to walk that afternoon. We go in opposite directions around this circle, the runners and Priscilla and I.  Which means we always pass one another twice on every circuit.  My heart expands just seeing the way they fly together, despite obstacles.


I like the circle around the golf course a lot. I like its journey, always back to its beginnings, and ever opening outwards and elsewhere and, in the end, leading to everywhere.


That feels like a good post on which to end the year. Happy holidays, everyone. Whatever holiday you celebrate, may the end of your year be nourishing and may the new year's circuit on which you choose to make your way be full and rich with joy and health, happiness and friendship..






My thanks to Flickr community members for these beautiful photographs of blind runners--supplied by "beautiful world," "Eryn Vorn," and "Juerg Christandl." Please click on the images for full documentation and more of their photostreams.