Archive for April 8th, 2012

A different sort of Easter Bonnet

I interviewed Betsy Folwell for a story in Bark Magazine five years ago, and we’ve kept up with each other via email ever since. We have a lot to talk about, I guess: Both of us lost our sight as adults, and both of us are published authors. I was delighted when Betsy agreed to write a guest post for my Safe & Sound blog today, and once you read this entry, I think you’ll see, ahem, why.

Into the Eye’s Mind

by Elizabeth Folwell

Morning announces itself to me not with roosters crowing but squiggles of yellow, blue, white and red on a black background. Like a drawing by Keith Haring. Or an aboriginal sand painting.

Betsy Folwell on Chimney Mountain, near Indian Lake, NY, with her dogs Kesey
(left), Tinkerbelle (right) and guide dog Oakley (foreground). Photograph by
Nancie Battaglia.

Ever since I lost my sight 10 years ago these moving pictures have been part of my routine. In fact, if I wake up without the show I feel cheated.

There’s a scientific name for this phenomenon, of course, and a scholarly explanation. Swiss naturalist and philosopher Charles Bonnet commented on the intense hallucinations his 87-year-old grandfather witnessed. The old man, blind from cataracts, told Charles about the faces, buildings and activities that appeared before him, as real as anything he had seen with young eyes. Bonnet was formulating complex theories about how the nervous system works as a series of vibrations, and the happy village scenes of his grandfather were evidence of energetic pathways between the optic nerve and brain.

We can thank Bonnet, who trained as an attorney but never practiced law, for several modern scientific observations: how butterflies breathe, how primitive animals regenerate limbs, how plants communicate. The last item continues to dazzle researchers today. Bonnet passionately pursued botany and biology until his own failing sight turned his mind inward, to philosophical explanations of nature’s progression toward perfection. To Bonnet, everything was evolving, climbing higher and higher, until insects attained angelhood.

Only some of Bonnet’s work has been translated into English, and he’s remembered more as a religious thinker than scientific innovator. In our times his name is attached to Bonnet syndrome, a handy phrase that family practice doctors and ophthalmologists can tell their patients who ask querulously, “Am I going crazy?” when they describe seeing little green men bouncing purple basketballs down Main Street. I am not making this up; when I described my own psychedelic worm farm to my family doc, he shared that story — without violating any HIPPA rules since he did not say who had aliens on the brain.

When Beth’s blog Imagine described how different parts of the brain respond to words(how, for example, the word “lavender” can make the scent-sensitive territory light up as if a bundle of flowers were right there) I thought of my own suggestible head. The visual cortex, even without accurate input, wants to stay in touch.

Elizabeth Folwell is the author of Short Carries: Essays from Adirondack Life as well as articles and blogs at Adirondack Life.


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