I have had moments of this much-discussed blind experience ever since I lost the sight of my left eye in my seventeenth or eighteenth year. It took the form of a sudden, vivid awareness of an object on my blind side, within a few inches of my head. Stepping out to cross the road, I would recoil from something immediately on my left. Glancing around, there would be something like a parked van with a set of ladders extending from the roof, which I had not noticed.

I have since discovered that this phenomenon is now generally called "echo location." It was after the first few months of complete blindness that I became aware of it. As long as any sight at all remained, I was not aware of experiencing echo location. I first noticed that walking home over the campus in the quiet of the evening I had a sense of presence, which was the realization of an obstacle. I discovered that if I stopped when I had this sense, and waved my white cane around, I would make contact with a tree trunk. This would be no more than three, four or five feet from me. The awareness, what ever it was, did not seem to extend beyond this range, and sometimes the tree would be as close as two feet. It was through sensing these trees, and verifying their exact location with my stick, that I gradually realized that I was developing some strange kind of perception. I learned that I could actually count the number of these trees which I would pass along the road leading down to the University gates. The sense did not seem to work on thin objects like lampposts. It had to be something about as bulky as a tree trunk or a human body before I sensed it.

As the months go past, sensitivity seems to be increasing. I find now that I am quite often aware of approaching lampposts, although it is true that, if I am expecting one, it is easier to sense it. I do occasionally walk into lampposts which I have not detected at all. When I am aware of echo location, it is infallible, in the sense that I cannot remember having had the experience only to find that there was nothing there.

Unfortunately, the experience itself does not always occur, so I can only use it as a sort of red light. I must stop when I sense something, but not sensing something does not mean that I can go ahead. Not only have I become sensitive to thinner objects, but the range seems to have increased.

When walking home, I used only to be able to detect parked cars by making contact with my cane. These days I almost never make contact with a parked car unexpectedly. Nearly always, I realize that there is an obstacle in my path before my stick strikes against it. This is in spite of the fact that I am now using the very long cane. I think the range for detecting parked cars must be approximately six to eight feet. Another feature of this experience is that it seems to be giving me a sort of generalized sense of the environment. There is one part of my route where I must step aside to avoid an upward flight of steps. I am expecting these, of course, since I come this way every day. Nevertheless, I am now aware of their approach, and not merely of the lower, closer steps, but of the whole massive object, looming up and somehow away from me. The phenomenon seems to be partly dependent on attention, since at home I can easily walk into the edge of doors, having had no warning of their proximity. Possibly in a house where sound is muffled by carpets and curtains, echoes would be less easily perceived. The experience itself is quite extraordinary, and I cannot compare it with anything else I have ever known. It is like a sense of physical pressure. One wants to put up a hand to protect oneself, so intense is the awareness. One shrinks from whatever it is. It seems to be characterized by a certain stillness in the atmosphere. Where one should perceive the movement of air and a certain openness, somehow one becomes aware of a stillness, an intensity instead of an emptiness, a sense of vague solidity. The exact source of the sensation is difficult to locate. It seems to be the head, yet often it seems to extend to the shoulders and even the arms. Awareness is greater when the environment is less polluted by sound, and in the silence of my late evening walk home, I am most intensely aware of it. In a crowded noisy street, the experience is less noticeable, and if I am travelling on somebody's elbow, I never seem to notice the experience at all. Presumably, I just switch off whatever it is.

It is a sort of guidance system which comes into operation when absolutely necessary, and when the cues are somehow available, but it is not always easy to distinguish it from other experiences. When I come to the end of a block, I can often tell. Is this because of the movement of the air, the breeze which one often feels at the corner, or is it the reverse of the experience of presence? Have I, without realizing it, been aware of the presence of the walls and fences, suddenly encountering an absence when they end? On one of my walks, I pass beside a five-foot-high fence made of vertical metal bars. This gives way, at a certain point, to a solid brick wall. I find that if I pay attention I can tell when I have left the fence and am going along the wall. There is, somehow, a sense of a more massive presence. I gather from conversations that this experience is essentially acoustic and is based upon awareness of echoes. This certainly fits in with my experience, but at the same time it is important to emphasize that one is not aware of listening. One is simply aware of becoming aware. The sense of pressure is upon the skin of the face, rather than upon or within the ears. That must be why the older name for the experience was "facial vision."

--- From Touching the Rock
An Experience of Blindness

John M. Hull
©1990 Sheldon Press
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