Neural Plasticity, Free Will and the Blind Painters

From the Belmont Club comments section comes this fascinating story about a congenitally blind Turkish artist, Esref Armagan, who paints visual imagery!  Armagan’s works are described as “disarmingly realistic” and his skills characterized as “formidable”.  My interest heightened as I read that Armagan visited the US at the invitation of Harvard & Boston University neurologists, who wanted to scan the operation of his brain for further insight into the phenomenon of neural plasticity.  In an also fascinating and intellectually challenging book I recently finished, The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz (UCLA professor of psychiatry) articulates a deeply grounded (in science and spiritual philosophy) finding that neuroplasticity serves as the mechanism for the operation of conscious mental force, or free will. (Neural plasticity can be defined as the ability of the neurons in the brain to reorganize their interconnections and roles in response to long-term loss of neural functioning elsewhere in the brain or long-term disruptions in the nervous sytem.  In a  book, The Mind and the Brain, in which the author, Jeffrey Schwartz, describes his two decades of research into neural plasticity and his collaboration with quantum physicists to understand how a human can consciously exert mental force to direct neuroplasticity for desired purposes (overcoming obsessive-compulsive disorder, compensating for learning disabilities, regenerating neural function in response to brain or nervous system injury, etc.).  Obviously a deep and penetrating thinker, Schwartz opens his book

The painter is Esref Armagan. And he is here in Boston to see if a peek inside his brain can explain how a man who has never seen can paint pictures that the sighted easily recognise – and even admire. He paints houses and mountains and lakes and faces and butterflies, but he’s never seen any of these things. He depicts colour, shadow and perspective, but it is not clear how he could have witnessed these things either. How does he do it?

Because if Armagan can represent images in the same way a sighted person can, it raises big questions not only about how our brains construct mental images, but also about the role those images play in seeing. Do we build up mental images using just our eyes or do other senses contribute too? How much can congenitally blind people really understand about space and the layout of objects within it? How much “seeing” does a blind person actually do?

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