The remembered present.

No genuine stereo perception is possible if one has lost an eye or an ear. But as Dr. Jorgensen observed, a remarkable degree of adjustment or adaptation can occur, and this depends on a variety of factors. One of these is the increased ability to make judgments using one eye or ear, a heightened use of monocular or monaural cues. Monocular cues include perspective, occlusion, and motion parallax (the shifting appearance Of the visual world as we move through it), and monaural cues are perhaps analogous to these, though there are also special mechanisms peculiar to hearing. The diffusion of sound with distance can be perceived monoaurally as well as binaurally, and the shape of the external ear, the pinna, provides valuable cues about both the direction and the asymmetries of sound reaching it. 

If one has lost stereoscopy or stereophony, one must, in effect, recalibrate one's environment, one's spatial world—and movement here is especially important, even relatively small but very informative movements of the head. Edward O. Wilson describes in his autobiography, Naturalist, how he lost an eye in childhood but nonetheless is able to judge distances and depths with great accuracy. When I met him I was struck by a curious nodding of the head, and took this to be a habit or a tic. But he said it was nothing of the sort—it was a strategy designed to give his remaining eye alternating perspectives (such as normally the two eyes would receive), and this, he felt, combined with his memories of true stereopsis, could give him a sort of simulacrum of stereo vision. He said that he adopted these head movements after observing similar movements in animals (like birds and reptiles, for instance) whose visual fields have very little overlap. Dr. Jorgensen did not mention any comparable head movements in himself—they would not be too popular in a concert hall—but such movements might well help one construct a richer, more diverse soundscape.

There are other cues that stem from the complex nature of sounds and the vicissitudes of sound waves as they bounce off objects and surfaces around one. Such reverberation can provide an enormous amount of information even to a single ear, and this, as Daniel Levitin has remarked, has an essential role in communicating emotion and pleasure. It is for this reason that acoustical engineering is a major science and art. If a concert hall or lecture hall is badly designed, sounds may be "killed," voices and music seem "dead." Through centuries of experience, the builders of churches and auditoriums have become remarkably adept at making their buildings sing.

Dr. Jorgensen says that he believes his good ear is "better than should be expected from a seventy-year-old." One's ear, one's cochlea, cannot improve as one gets older, but as Jacob L. clearly demonstrated, the brain itself can improve its ability to make use of whatever auditory information it has. This is the power of cerebral plasticity. Whether or not "hearing fibres may have crossed in the corpus callosum" to the other ear, as Jorgensen suggests, is questionable—but there most assuredly have been significant changes in his brain as he has adapted to life with one ear. New connections must have been made, new areas recruited (and a sufficiently subtle brain-imaging technique might be able to demonstrate such changes). It seems probable, too—for vision and hearing normally complement each other and tend to compensate for each other if one is impaired—that Dr. Jorgensen, consciously or unconsciously, is using vision and visual data to map the position of instruments in the orchestra and the dimensions, spaciousness, and contours of the concert hall, as a way of reinforcing a sense of auditory space. 

Perception is never purely in the present - it has to draw on experience of the past; this is why Gerald M. Edelman speaks of "the remembered present." We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admired with every new perception. Such perceptions must be especially powerful in a strongly musical person, a habitual concertgoer like Dr. Jorgensen, and imagery is surely recruited to complement one's perceptions, especially if perceptual input is limited. "Every act of perception," Edelman writes, "is to some degree an act Of creation, and every act Of memory is to some degree an act of imagination." In this way the brain's experience and knowledge are called upon, as well as its adaptability and resilience. What is remarkable in Dr. Jorgensen's case, at least, is that, after such a severe loss, with no possibility of function being restored in the ordinary sense, there has nonetheless been a significant reconstruction of function, so that much Of what seemed irretrievably lost is now available to him again. Though it took some months, he has, against all expectation, been able to recover in large measure what was most important to him: the richness, the resonance, and the emotional power of music. 

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The truth about reality.

Reality is everything that exists. That sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Actually, it isn’t. There are various problems. What about dinosaurs, which once existed but exist no longer? What about stars, which are so far away that, by the time their light reaches us and we can see them, they may have fizzled out?

We’ll come to dinosaurs and stars in a moment. But in any case, how do we know things exist, even in the present? Well, our five senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – do a pretty good job of convincing us that many things are real: rocks and camels, newly mown grass and freshly ground coffee, sandpaper and velvet, waterfalls and doorbells, sugar and salt. But are we only going to call something ‘real’ if we can detect it directly with one of our five senses?

What about a distant galaxy, too far away to be seen with the naked eye? What about a bacterium, too small to be seen without a powerful microscope? Must we say that these do not exist because we can’t see them? No. Obviously we can enhance our senses through the use of special instruments: telescopes for the galaxy, microscopes for bacteria. Because we understand telescopes and microscopes, and how they work, we can use them to extend the reach of our senses – in this case, the sense of sight – and what they enable us to see convinces us that galaxies and bacteria exist.

How about radio waves? Do they exist? Our eyes can’t detect them, nor can our ears, but again special instruments – television sets, for example – convert them into signals that we can see and hear. So, although we can’t see or hear radio waves, we know they are a part of reality. As with telescopes and microscopes, we understand how radios and televisions work. So they help our senses to build a picture of what exists: the real world – reality. Radio telescopes (and X-ray telescopes) show us stars and galaxies through what seem like different eyes: another way to expand our view of reality.

Back to those dinosaurs. How do we know that they once roamed the Earth? We have never seen them or heard them or had to run away from them. Alas, we don’t have a time machine to show them to us directly. But here we have a different kind of aid to our senses: we have fossils, and we can see them with the naked eye. Fossils don’t run and jump but, because we understand how fossils are formed, they can tell us something of what happened millions of years ago. We understand how water, with minerals dissolved in it, seeps into corpses buried in layers of mud and rock. We understand how the minerals crystallize out of the water and replace the materials of the corpse, atom by atom, leaving some trace of the original animal’s form imprinted on the stone. So, although we can’t see dinosaurs directly with our senses, we can work out that they must have existed, using indirect evidence that still ultimately reaches us through our senses: we see and touch the stony traces of ancient life.

In a different sense, a telescope can work like a kind of time machine. What we see when we look at anything is actually light, and light takes time to travel. Even when you look at a friend’s face you are seeing them in the past, because the light from their face takes a tiny fraction of a second to travel to your eye. Sound travels much more slowly, which is why you see a firework burst in the sky noticeably earlier than you hear the bang. When you watch a man chopping down a tree in the distance, there is an odd delay in the sound of his axe hitting the tree.

Light travels so fast that we normally assume anything we see happens at the instant we see it. But stars are another matter. Even the sun is eight light-minutes away. If the sun blew up, this catastrophic event wouldn’t become a part of our reality until eight minutes later. And that would be the end of us! As for the next nearest star, Proxima Centauri, if you look at it in 2012, what you are seeing is happening in 2008. Galaxies are huge collections of stars. We are in one galaxy called the Milky Way. When you look at the Milky Way’s next-door neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy, your telescope is a time machine taking you back two and a half million years. There’s a cluster of five galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet, which we see through the Hubble telescope spectacularly colliding with each other. But we see them colliding 280 million years ago. If there are aliens in one of those colliding galaxies with a telescope powerful enough to see us, what they are seeing on Earth, at this very moment, here and now, is the early ancestors of the dinosaurs.

Are there really aliens in outer space? We’ve never seen or heard them. Are they a part of reality? Nobody knows; but we do know what kind of things could one day tell us if they are. If ever we got near to an alien, our sense organs could tell us about it. Perhaps somebody will one day invent a telescope powerful enough to detect life on other planets from here. Or perhaps our radio telescopes will pick up messages that could only have come from an alien intelligence. For reality doesn’t just consist of the things we already know about: it also includes things that exist but that we don’t know about yet and won’t know about until some future time, perhaps when we have built better instruments to assist our five senses.

Atoms have always existed, but it was only rather recently that we became sure of their existence, and it is likely that our descendants will know about many more things that, for now, we do not. That is the wonder and the joy of science: it goes on and on uncovering new things. This doesn’t mean we should believe just anything that anybody might dream up: there are a million things we can imagine but which are highly unlikely to be real – fairies and hobgoblins, leprechauns and hippogriffs. We should always be open-minded, but the only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does.

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The elitist nature of ink.

We live in a very visual world today. Do words have any power left?

I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. [Laughs.] To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.

Many years ago, you said that a writer’s job is to use the time of a stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. There are a lot of ways for a stranger to pass time these days.

That’s right. There are all these other things to do with time. It used to be people would wonder what the hell they were going to do for the winter. [Laughs.] Then a big book would come out – a big, wonderful book – and everybody would be reading it to pass the time. It was a very primitive experiment, before television, where people would have to look at ink on paper, for God’s sake. I myself grew up when radio was very important. I’d come home from school and turn on the radio. There were funny comedians and wonderful music, and there were plays. I used to pass time with radio. Now, you don’t have to be literate to have a nice time.

You’ve stated that television is one of the most viable art forms in the world today.

Well, it is. It works like a dream. It’s a way to hold attention, and it’s awfully good at that. For a lot of people, TV is life itself. Churches used to provide people with better company than they had at home, but now, no matter what your neighborhood life or family life is like, you turn on the television and you get relatives, family. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but scientists have created baby geese that believe that an airplane is their mother. Human beings will believe in all kinds of things that aren’t true, and that’s okay. And TV is a part of that.

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