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Entries Tagged as 'Common Book'

Use “The Island of the Colorblind” as a Roadmap!

August 21st, 2015 by W&M FYE · No Comments

Our final Common Book blog (for now!) comes from Kathy Larrieu, the Arts & Sciences Web Specialist.  Heed her advice and WELCOME TO THE TRIBE!!

Full disclosure: I was an environmental science major who focused on classes in geology and ecology. Natural history still makes my mental ears perk up. (Tree-climbing crabs?! Seriously?)

More disclosure: My daughter is a high school junior who is going through an existential crisis: all her friends know what they want to major in, and she has no clue. I worry that she’ll be pressured to commit to some program before she’s taken some time to really find out where her strengths lie.

So, that’s what I brought to the book.

The beauty of The Island of the Colorblind is that it isn’t about just one thing. Yeah, sure, the one line summary could be, “an exploration of unusual Micronesian medical complaints.” But the book touches on many disciplines – history, government, psychology, anthropology, biology, geology, sociology, philosophy, religion, art – and shows how those disciplines intersect in the real world.

And it made me wonder: Could this book be a guide?

If I were 18 again, and undecided about my studies, could I get an idea of what courses to look for from this book?  Learning about the coconut-eating crabs gave me a bit of a thrill (come on, people – they’re crabs that climb trees to eat coconuts! That’s too cool!). So, maybe I should look into taking a biology course like the Introduction to Ecology and Environmental Science.

That doesn’t mean that I’d become a biology major. But it could be a useful starting point.  If I pay attention to how the principles of this course connect with other disciplines, and follow my interests from there, I should be headed in the right direction. In my case, this would’ve worked out just fine.

What about you? Which details of the book gave you a little thrill? Do you think this approach would be helpful?

Tags: Common Book

“The Island of the Colorblind” – Sharing Experiences

August 20th, 2015 by W&M FYE · No Comments

Gene Tracy, Center for the Liberal Arts & Department of Physics.

My thoughts on this book reflect the fact that I have been on a road trip with my daughter Kathryn for the last few weeks. Let me start with this tree at Valley of the Gods, Utah:

Valley of the Gods

While answering one call of nature, I was startled by a call to another one: the call to astonishment. The tree was almost vibrating, green against a shocking blue sky, the red-pink sandstone, and the yellow of the flowers. The tree seemed to grow from the rock itself. We were more than five miles from any paved road, and had seen only one car in an hour. We were surrounded by silence and the vibrating landscape. I could see why Native Americans view the place as holy. Things seemed more charged, more real. But was that just me? How might others see it? How would someone who was colorblind see that landscape? Would their experience of that place be somehow ‘lesser’? I once drove through neighboring parts of Utah with a friend who was colorblind, and he asked me to describe the scene to him. Words failed me. Oliver Sacks makes the point that those with severe achromatopsia have just as rich an inner visual experience as the rest of us, even though they don’t ‘see’ color the way we do. They are sensitive to a richer variety of texture and shades of what we might call ‘gray’. (Probably much more than fifty!)

One reason I enjoy long road trips is that it allows for relaxed and extended conversations. When I was telling my daughter about the Island of the Colorblind, she related a story about a friend of hers who has synesthesia. (This occurs when the sensory input gets ‘crosswired’ in the brain. That is, crosswired from a ‘normal’ perspective) There are various forms of the condition. Some with synesthesia see colors associated with shapes. (For example, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov saw each letter shape surrounded by its own halo of color. The letter ‘e’ might be pink for example. This helped to guide him in his crafting of sentences and paragraphs. He wanted the prose to have a pleasing appearance on the page.) My daughter’s friend experiences musical sounds as accompanied by color, and she has discovered she can ‘see’ when someone has had too much to drink because the color of that person’s voice becomes muddied, as if the colors mix together with the aural slur.

I bring this up because it shows how our immediate perception of the world around us, which seems so solid and obvious, is in many ways constructed for us by the brain, an organ that takes in a bewildering flood of information from all our senses, and produces a ‘theory’ of the world around us. A physicist would say that ‘color’ does not exist in the world around us. Light has a variety of frequencies and wavelengths, but these are not ‘color’. The things in the world absorb and emit light of various wavelengths with different efficiencies, and the surface roughness scatters light that falls on it through different angles. The world around us is awash in light, as is outer space, filled with the light of stars and left over radiation from the Big Bang. It is only when our eyes intersect a small part of that sea of radiation, and our brain gets to work on it, only then does ‘color’ emerge, as an internal experience, an activity of our unique brain trying to puzzle out what is going on, in answer to that call to astonishment I wrote of earlier.

To emphasize this point even more strongly: on our road trip we were able to attend the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Los Angeles. This competition, which carried prizes for first, second, and third place of $2M, $1M, and $500K respectively, was intended to promote further development of robots that could navigate post-disaster landscapes, to carry out search and rescue operations, or to enter places that no human could survive (such as the damaged reactor at Fukushima in Japan). The robots were challenged to drive a vehicle to the site, exit the vehicle, open a door, turn off a valve, flip a power switch, climb over rubble, and ascend a short flight of stairs. Each of these are actions a human finds trivial, yet watching the competition brought home to me how very complicated each of the actions is. These robots were the best in the world, yet of the twenty-five competitors, just a few were able to carry out all of the tasks. Many fell over at some point in the competition, but only one could right itself. It was excruciating to watch at times, because for ten or fifteen minutes a robot would scan its immediate surroundings, trying to figure out ‘where is the wall?’, ‘where is the valve handle?’, ‘how far am I from the steps?’, all while trying to attend to its balance to make sure it didn’t fall over. In order to simulate realistic post-disaster conditions, human controllers for each robot were kept in a secure location well away from the course where the action was taking place, and they could only see what the robot saw. While these robots are state of the art, the computations involved in controlling such robots are complex and require significant computer power. All the robots had to carry their own battery packs, be semi-autonomous, and be free-standing. Many were humanoid, but not all. The Terminator Skynet scenario, where our machines become aware and then turn on us, isn’t going to happen just yet. If these robots turned on you, you could fight back by just tipping them over with a good push, or run away from them at a casual walk.  I bring this up here because major part of the challenge for the robots was the need to build up a ‘theory of the world’ based upon the sensor information available. Each robot carried its own suite of sensors, and from that data alone it had to construct a three-dimensional ‘theory’, and then act upon it. We do this without being aware most of the time how very complex it is. When watching a robot try to do things humans find easy, taking fifteen minutes to figure out how to turn a door handle, it drove home to me how exquisite the human mind is adapted to our world, both natural and artificial. And it reminded me of the points that Sacks makes in his book about how adaptable and remarkable the human brain is.

In the book Ontological Relativity, the philosopher WVO Quine argued that our internal subjective experience of the world is unique. So how do we know that what I experience as the electric ‘blue’ of the sky in my photo of the tree from Valley of the Gods is the same ‘blue’ you experience when viewing the same photo (assuming we both look at the photo on the same screen at the same time…no cheating!). How do we know we have the same internal experience? Quine’s answer was that we don’t know the experience is the same, but that this really doesn’t matter so long as there is a stable mapping from my internal experiences to yours. In other words, so long as whenever I see an object I experience with the blue of that photo I report it as ‘blue’ and you do as well, then we can meaningfully communicate about our inner lives. In a sense, we always communicate with one another by metaphors, but we usually aren’t aware of this because all this complex information processing is second nature to us. In the end, what is most important to us is to be able to share our experiences with one another. What Sacks’ book does is to help us see that even when others have very different physical circumstances, and very different ways of seeing the world, so long as we can communicate those experiences with one another through resonant metaphors, meaningful human relationships can be formed.

Tags: Common Book

“The Island of the Colorblind” – Explore Outside Our Normal

August 19th, 2015 by W&M FYE · No Comments

We’re fortunate to have Pamela Sardeson Willard, Development Officer for Arts & Sciences, share with us her thoughts on this year’s Common Book.  Welcome Pamela!

I enjoyed the book and Oliver Sacks’ discussion of how his island immersion fused into one interconnected experience.  One question that the reading provoked for me was how we should look at the “norm”, mindful of the assumptions that create our perceptions.

Many of the teachers and preachers who came to these islands had their notions of superiority shattered when discovering what they could learn from island culture and history.  They end up embracing a blend of outside/western knowledge and local/indigenous knowledge.  How can we apply this learning from reality to other research, exploring what isn’t our perception of normal?

I thought that the interconnected approach that Sacks takes led to a fuller vision of biodiversity and neurodiversity.  Unable to see color, the maskun could see patterns through luminescence that “normal” vision missed.  They had stronger acuity and enhanced sensitivity to sensory and visual details of objects where “normal” vision stopped with color identification.  Having raised a child with neurodiversity, I embrace this term that replaces the label disabled.   Sacks’ book sparked my memory of an article that I read several years ago comparing the brain to a rain forest full of species with divergent functionality.  No one flower or plant in the rain forest is superior.   In the rain forest, as the medicine men of Pingelap realize, each plant species has a biological/genetic history that produces distinction in appearance, adaptation, and potential significance.  All plants are sacred to them.  This remarkable diversity creates an abundant lab in which to discover medicinal miracles.

I think these insights that Sacks shares encourage us to find the best way to explore what is outside our normal, and learn to value and incorporate different types of knowledge to do so.

Tags: Common Book

“The Island of the Colorblind” – Unintended Consequences

August 18th, 2015 by W&M FYE · No Comments

Many thanks to Christine Nemacheck, Center for the Liberal Arts & Department of Government, for today’s Common Book blog!

Oliver Sacks is an interesting example of a scholar who embraces a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the world and, more specifically, the human nervous system.  Having read some of his other work and listened to several of his contributions to RadioLab, a public radio show and podcast, I looked forward to reading The Island of the Colorblind.

I found the most appealing and thought provoking sections of the book to be those that dealt directly with Sacks’ understanding of achromatopsia, not only in terms of its genetic determinants, but also the cultural, environmental, and natural causes. Sacks asserts that the convergence of atmospheric and geological forces leading to the formation of the Micronesian atolls and the catastrophic typhoon in the late 1700s were essential to the development of the significant achromatopsic population that exists in Pingelap today. Cleary one could not have predicted that development based on these natural events, but failing to consider those external forces would lead to a different and perhaps incomplete understanding of the condition.  There is little that occurs in the world that does not result in rippling effects and unanticipated consequences.

Sacks’ discussion led me to think about the law of unintended consequences more generally.  Some time ago, I read about the reintroduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park.  Their repopulation led to a myriad of changes in the Park’s ecosystem: as expected, the elk population declined; but the wolves’ presence also changed, among other things, elk migratory patterns, the Park’s vegetation, its beaver population, and stream hydrology.

Unexpected outcomes are not reserved to natural ecosystems.  Most any political decision, or non-decision, leads to outcomes that are outside the scope of debate.  When the “war on drugs” was initiated in the 1970s and 1980s, the objective was to proscribe the distribution and use of illicit drugs in the United States through sure and swift penalties for that illegal behavior.  But, one of the primary consequences of those policies has been extreme prison overcrowding.  That overcrowding, and racial biases in sentencing have generated debates on the underlying purpose of, and inequities in, the criminal justice system.

Attempts at avoiding unintended consequences such as these are futile.  But, what Sacks reminds us and models in Colorblind, is that by thinking and learning in a more holistic fashion, we are better prepared to deal with the outcomes we face.

Tags: Common Book

“The Island of the Colorblind” – External Forces

August 17th, 2015 by W&M FYE · No Comments

Thanks to Nick Popper, Center for the Liberal Arts & Department of History, for his thoughts on our Common Book.

Among all the fascinating encounters recounted by Sacks in Island of the Colorblind, I was most struck by his report near the end that the condition had barely registered with the physicians on Pohnpei.   He attributed this invisibility – that the island of the colorblind was also the island of the colorblind-blind – to a combination of self-isolation by the afflicted and the urgency of other medical problems.  But it also struck me that he understates his impact as vector in the transmission of medical knowledge; one imagines that the physicians in attendance left the presentation with a new, indelible perspective on the population they treated.  As someone interested in the production of knowledge and belief, what I found most striking about this is how these islands of the colorblind contain multiple cultures that are unevenly aware of each other (they are more like archipelagos than islands), and how the introduction of external forces galvanizes new understandings between them.  Sacks intimates that this is not simply a case of western knowledge trumping native belief, for he is clearly struck by the kinds of knowledge possessed both by achromatopes and Micronesians (though he could have been clearer about his, just as he could have been clearer that this world remains adversely structured by the continued military presence of external powers).  The lesson I gleaned from this: Knowledge doesn’t develop organically; rather, it is stimulated by unfamiliar encounters.  But this also led me to question his final note.  Yes, the internet allows the formation of new communities unconstrained by geography, and the ability to connect achromatopesacross the world surely is wonderful.  But the internet creates communities that have borders as well as centers – new islands, but islands all the same. The challenge of a civil society is to let these islands thrive while ensuring they never seal themselves off from – nor are excluded from – the broader archipelago.

Tags: Common Book