What happens to the bits round the edges of my vision that I cannot see – the cropped off bits that my eyes send to the cutting room floor? Well, my brain fills in the edges with what it thinks it there.
I might be sitting in a restaurant chatting after a meal, and as I look at the person I am talking to, I will feel that I can see the empty plate below my nose. My brain knows the plate is there, so I see it, even though it is right in the blind part of my sight. Later I look down and am perplexed to see an empty place mat. The plate has gone. I did not see the waiter take it away. I should not be surprised, after all I am registered blind, but it never fails to startle me.
My brain does a wonderful thing, it takes what I can see and uses it as a template for the rest. I ate from the plate and saw what it looks like – its shape and pattern – so my brain simply uses memory, to maintain a credible image in my blind edges when I look up. It is a mirage – a very convincing one. My brain does not refresh the image, that it thinks it sees, until I realise the plate is no longer there.
I really have to introspect to make myself aware that I am not seeing all I should. My blindness is often unconscious, although now that my sight has worsened I am becoming more and more aware.
There is no edge or frame to my vision, just as there is no edge to yours. In my blind periphery I usually see nothing. People with RP sometimes describe it as like looking out of your elbow, or what other people see from the back of their heads.
At other times, particularly when it is bright, I can see haziness at the edges, a smoky light-grey or white blur, like an invisible curtain encroaching on my sight without me really being aware it is there. It feels a bit like someone rubbed vaseline round the edge of my eyeballs, or like looking through scrunched up cling-film.
I am interested in the experiences of people who have less sight than I do. There is a grim vernacular that surrounds blindness, people talk of ‘darkness’ and the ‘lights going out’. Is this what it is really like? I asked people on a RP Facebook group whether this rang true. Nobody reported seeing black edges or total blackness after they lost their sight. The consensus was that they do not see anything at the edge – there is no extra darkness – just that the edges are a lot nearer the centre. Those with no sight at all say that they see blurry light, or complete blankness – no white or black, just nothing.
People seem to struggle with the idea of partial sight or blindness, much more than they do with deafness. They can block their ears but when their eyes are open they cannot block their sight. Someone clever, probably Shakespeare, said, “The eyes are the window to the soul”. There is something existential about seeing, which means people equate how they see the world with the very essence of themselves. Vision is the portal through which they physically interact with others. Perhaps, they worry that without sight, their own essence would somehow be diminished. I wonder if this is why people flounder when they try to imagine seeing nothing – not blackness or whiteness – just nothing, because it seems close to death.
I think that existential angst accounts for a lot of the deep-seated fear that surrounds going blind. I certainly felt something along these lines before I lost some of my sight. Then I realised how ignorant I was being. The essence of your person does not live in your eyes, or your ears, or your muscles or any other sense. It lies in your experiences, your memories, your imagination, how you communicate and interplay with others, and how you make sense of all of these things.
Acquired vision loss, or deafblindness does not change your person, but the person you are will determine how you deal with it. The brain has a remarkable capacity to adapt and so do people.