Back in June, Annabelle and I were sitting outside on our wooden bench one morning. It was my favorite spring weather--cool, windy, and bright--and the leaves of the plants and trees around us were all shifting in the wind. Annabelle played with the ivy growing behind the bench. She likes plants, especially when she gets to tear them apart. She pulled leaves off the ivy growing nearby and began to push leaves down between the bench slats. She carefully watched each one fall to the ground, then picked another, turned it in her hand, and pushed it through the crack between the slats.
Finished with the leaves, she crawled over to the edge of the bench and put a hand out into the air. If I hadn't caught her, she would have crawled right off the edge--she tried to lean on the air the same way her other hand was leaning on the bench still. Once she felt that there was nothing there, she could see that it was an edge and avoided it. Instead she crawled toward the armrest, but stopped and reached for it too early--it was still five inches away. She could see it and wanted to touch it, but couldn't tell that it was too far away. She moved a few inches closer and tried again, and again, until she was finally close enough to touch it. I could visualize the neurons firing like crazy in her head: she was using her sense of touch to map out her depth perception.
It's been fun, and very difficult, trying to imagine how Annabelle sees the world. My husband pointed out that her world probably looks a lot like a moving, color version of the photograph above--a barrage of visual data without much meaning. From her point of view on the bench, the edge was only a change of color until she put her hand out and felt it was an edge. Same with the bench slats, and the distance of the armrest. The visual experience didn't make sense until her sense of touch that gave meaning to what she saw.
The same is true for all of us. Maybe because we have language, and categorize or label the senses as separate, we don't see that it's really not possible to experience just one sense. The way we learned to see is not the way in which we're taught a subject in school, one at a time. It's total immersion learning. It's the way we experience the world as well, although with all of our adult filters, categorization, and labels, we think we experience the world in a much simpler way. I can get glimpses of my unfiltered experience watching Annabelle learn.
Image: Ronald C. James, photographer, from J. Thurston and R.G. Carraher, Optical Illusions and the Visual Arts.