Learning Through Association: A Blind Man Shapes a Learning Theory
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The study of the behavior of blind people can provide insight and clarification regarding the learning process of humans. If a man blind from birth has learned about shapes purely by touch, when he is cured of his blindness he will not be able to recognize these shapes only by sight.
The act of learning has several different aspects. One is recollection, in which a person discovers information that they had already knew, and his brain can be triggered to remember this information without being told it straight out. Learning, however, is also achieved through associations that one has been taught. In example, a person can figure out that an apple pie is baking without being told, based on the smell which they have come to associate with this. This information was not innate- if he had never been told or seen through experience that the smell corresponded to the pie, then he would not be able to make this association. In the case of the previously blind man, the recognition of shapes by sight is not innate knowledge, since the names of shapes need to be taught to a person; the names themselves don't have any real inherent value, they just serve as convenient standard labeling. The shapes are not dictated by logic, if one had never been shown what a shape looks like and told the name, he would not be able to figure it out on his own.
The blind man has never been taught to make the association between the way that things feel, and the way that they look. For people that have eyesight, it seems simple and natural that one can visualize the way that something looks based on how it feels. If a ball fell on a person as they were napping on the beach, he would know without opening his eyes that this was a sphere, because he has learned through association that shapes which have a smooth, curved edge without any points, is a sphere. Both people with and without eyesight would be able to make this association. Someone with eyesight, however, can visualize what this ball looks like, and identify it later without touching it, because he has learned the association between touch and sight- he has been able to utilize all of his senses when he originally learned about shapes. He simultaneously felt and saw the shape, creating an association in his mind between the feel and appearance of the ball, and will automatically be able to connect them in the future, without having to teach each sense, sight and touch, separately.
For the previously blind person, this association has not yet been made; therefore it is not automatic to translate the sense of touch into sight. One might claim that it is logical that things should look a certain way based on how they feel. In example, if one has felt a triangle, and has counted that it contains three sharp points connected together by three straight lines, then he should be able to figure it what it looks like. This theory, however, is taking for granted the fact that blind people have no point of reference on which to compare things when they make a visualization. If someone pointed out to this man what a square and a circle look like, then he may by logic be able to figure out what shape is the triangle; based on his memory that the square has four sharp points and four straight lines, he can figure out what a point and a line look like and apply this knowledge to search for a shape that has three points and lines. He will see that the circle, which felt round, appears curved, so he will know that a triangle does not contain this type of line. The blind person, however, will not be able to recognize these shapes without any help, because there is no link connected the two senses together, therefore it is impossible for him to use logic to determine them. Just as with math, which is innate and logical and can be figured out by a person, one cannot do calculus until they have learned the basic fundamentals of arithmetic, a person can potentially figure out what shapes look like based on touch, but they have to first be taught the basics, in example what a curve looks like. Similarly, one can determine whether an individual is a boy or a girl based on their voice; one does not have to memorize a list of the boys and girls that exist in the world, it is figured out on a case-by-case basis. If, however, he has not previously learned through experience that a certain voice corresponds to either of the sexes, he would not know how to identify it. The basic association must be made before one can figure it out on their own. Humans are conditioned to have certain responses based on stimuli that occur in their lives. Someone who has experienced a traumatic fire, will become afraid and anxious in the future when hearing sirens or seeing a fire truck because he will associate it with the bad event in his life during which he also saw fire trucks and heard sirens. If he did not have a personal experience with these stimuli, or had not learned through experience what they represent, he would not react toward them with panic. The touch of the blind man in this case can be compared to the hearing of sirens or seeing of fire trucks, they are all senses that on their own will not translate into another response. Only when the man has been taught how to translate touch into sight, can he relate them to each other. Without the association established between the fire truck and the bad event that it represents, the brain would not link them together.
Besides for the issues of association that exist with a blind man who can now see; another factor is that if he is only shown the shapes, and not allowed to touch them, then he may not have the capacity to truly see the shape. Some shapes have many dimensions, and the only way to identify them is by picking them up and examining them. In example, if you just look at a cube from a certain angle, it looks like a square. You would have to move it to notice that it has many planes, and is a three dimensional object. With someone who used to be blind, this poses even more of a problem. By just looking at the shape, he may even be able to identify it as a square based on its four points (putting aside all of the difficulties which I discussed). He will not, however, be able to understand that this is in fact a cube, because he must pick up this object and observe that it is the combination of many squares, put together to form this shape. Someone who has seen the cube before and known that it exists in this form, will be able to tell that it is not a square, but the person who has previously been blind has no exposure to this concept and therefore will need to pick it up the first time in order to identify it.
One may try to prove that a person that was blind can identify the shapes without touching them, by bringing the example of a musician that is able to determine which keys on the piano to press based on just listening to a piece of music. This, however, is once again neglecting to realize that this musician has at one point learned the foundations of piano playing, and knows already which key would produce which sound. Upon never playing the piano, he would not be able to merely look at the piano keys and figure out which one would make the sound he desires. Learning is about forming certain associations, and then applying those concepts acquired to other similar circumstances one encounters. Logic cannot be used unless there are facts to build upon. The previously blind person cannot transfer his knowledge of feel into visualization because he has never been given the facts upon which these principles rest; how the feel of objects relate to their appearance.