One question that I am asked a lot is how it actually works that I can see with my hands, and that is a great question – perhaps even better than the person asking it even realizes. I say this because I think that there is a misconception that visually impaired people are given special training to visualize the world around them through touch, but this is true only on the most basic of levels. There has actually never been a book written that outlines the techniques of haptic visualization (the fancy term for visualizing through touch) – I am currently putting one together that will take a person very quickly through the basic steps, and then right into advanced techniques that you can use immediately. One of the surprising things is that these techniques are not just for the visually impaired; in fact people with sight can get just as much out of it – if not more in certain circumstances.
Sighted artists are often intrigued and a little jealous when it takes them 2-3 hours with a model to get what they need, but that I can walk in and in a few minutes have a complete 3D model worked out in my head (I sometimes take longer, but it is my choice and not sensory necessity). This is because while the eyes are great at taking in a lot of information quickly, they aren’t that good at acquiring the intense detail that an artist requires. This has led to me teaching my Haptic Visualization (HV) techniques to quite a few professional sighted artists, and with amazing results. When you think about it though there are quite a few professions that could be helped through the use of HV. Surgeons, for example – they often have to rely on their sense of touch because as great as miniature cameras are they can’t show all the angles all the time. Police frisks would be greatly helped by HV techniques; it could mean a lot to an officer if while doing a pat down and finding an object if they were able to determine what that object was just as soon as they touched it. It can really help in any profession where the work is obscured such as: Mechanics, firemen, technicians etc. The retention of your memory of what you visualize using HV has no comparison with sight – I can do a portrait today with the same detail of someone whose face I felt five years ago with no problem. Detail is what the hands where made to sense, and with over 100 receptors in each fingertip they are well equipped to inundate your brain with plenty of information – if you are using HV techniques while feeling a person or object it is almost impossible to forget what you have felt.
So what are the blind taught? Generally the techniques are limited to basic orientation – such as using your fingers to trail a wall; learning how to interpret the different sensations you feel as your can slides over different surfaces, and other techniques such as these that center on your spatial orientation. Techniques like these are great, and help with mobility, but they are also a world away from being able to feel a person’s face and know exactly what they look like, and then to be able to reproduce that through touch alone. The difference is that I approached the problem of seeing through touch from an artist’s viewpoint. An artists is constantly decontructing an image to see how it works, and how it is put together – how they would recreate it. Through imagination and creativity they manipulate the image until it almost becomes a part of themselves; until they have a true understanding of that particular image. Because I was an artist it was only natural for me to push at the visual boundaries because art requires far more detail and real-time information than any other activity that had ever been done through touch. Before I give an example of how this is done I want to tell you quickly what it means. Sure it allows you to create art, which for me is vital, but it effects every aspect of your life. Because of the HV techniques whenever my son was born and placed upon Jacqi’s stomach I could feel his face, and see him with exquisite detail as he took his first breaths of life. Colors for me often come from emotion, and I learned more about color that day than from any of the dozens of color theory books I had read in the past.
Perception has real meaning, and in many ways is the doorway to understanding. It makes sense really; everything we know, even the words that comprise our thoughts had to be learned by passing through our senses in some way. Any increase in our ability to perceive the world around us has an incredible impact on – well, pretty much everything about us. Think about the last time you had a sudden inspiration that came from something you just learned. I remember as a kid learning fractions, and having a terrible time of it until suddenly something I read just made it all click together. We’ve all had that, but this is more than that because it isn’t just the acquiring of one piece of new information – it is a new way of receiving a type of information that you have never had access to before. My world is more colorful and detailed now than when I had sight; I can only imagine what it must be like for a sighted person to combine these techniques with their vision – the world is always looking for people with a fresh perspective; I can only imagine that being able to see in new and different ways than those around you could only help. It is like acquiring a second set of eyes, but these have special abilities that the originals don’t have. They can detect the size, shape, and dimensions of an object – which of course eyeballs can do; HV just does it more accurately, but it also tells you temperature and texture (actual texture not just what something ‘looks’ like how it would feel) which is something the eyes just can’t do.
How does it work though? HV – the way I use it; is a process of breaking up something that you want to visualize into small parts that allow you to gather great detail that relates directly to every other part. Almost like building a map. To visualize a face you would break it up into its constituent parts such as overall shape, hairline, nose, eyes, eyebrows, mouth, chin, ears, jaw, and neck. Let’s take an ear for example, and if you don’t get this completely at first don’t worry – I am rushing through this just to give a general idea of principals. Instead of visualizing the ear as a whole it helps to break it up into three different areas. You can call the different areas the top, middle and bottom if you want, or if you want to get a little more precise you can go with the formal labels and call it the helix, antihelix, and lobule. Find the highest point at the top of the ear (top of the helix) and the lowest point at the bottom of the ear along the lobule, and draw an imaginary line between the two. The middle of the ear is generally where the antihelix curves out closest to the helix. Now that we have the three areas it allows us to form a pretty good silhouette of the ear in our minds – no real detail, but a good overall shape. Each of these three areas have ‘norms’ of how they could be shaped. The top part of the ear is usually curves over in a smooth circular pattern – so this is what is expected, and it helps to have this image of a perfect curving ear shape in your mind – this gives us a base line of comparison. What we are really looking for is how the actual ear differs from our mental image of the perfect curve. Almost every ear will be different so all we have to do is see where and how it diverges from our perfect baseline ear curve.
The middle of the ear can go three ways – for some it goes almost straight down, but for most it either goes outward or inward. We made an imaginary line earlier between the top and bottom of the ear, and now we just determine how close it comes in or how far it reaches away from it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but with a little practice on different ear shapes it becomes second nature to determine this very quickly. The bottom of the ear can either have a lobe that dangles or may just have an angle that goes straight to the face. Just take note of this, and also of anything that you felt that was unexpected – such as an extra thick lobe, or a crease, or large piercing holes. Every distinction is a landmark that can give you anchor points from one part to another and make the ear that you are feeling unique and one of a kind. I will feel each part of a feature until it is crystal clear in my mind, and then the feature as a whole until it all gels together perfectly. This takes a little time at first, but with practice your hands start doing the work without you having to even think about it much.
The main idea behind these techniques is in structuring what you are feeling in a way so that you always have something to compare it to and to relate it to other features. This way the features are not just floating out in space, but are connected to each other in very tangible ways so that putting the face together later on canvas is merely a process of going through each step again. I hope this blog has answered some questions about how seeing through touch works at a basic level; I’ll definately be writing more on this subject later on if there is an interest.