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Looks also count

Translated by the author



PUBBLICAZIONE: 7 dicembre 2007 - in Biblioteca

A colour’s code for impaired vision people

Lidia Beduschi
Etnoscienza, Università Ca' Foscari, Venezia - a.a. 2004-2005



ABSTRACT:  “Looks also count” said to me Pilar (the name is fancifull) together while trying to build a suitable description for the blind of the picture “San Giorgio e il Drago” by Masaccio. 

Pilar is a later blind young woman; she remembers colours, even if she says to me that they are now “metal shine”, “phosphoresent”when she’s dreaming. Pilar worked with me in 2004, as Exceptional collaborator, while we, together with a tyflologist tried to build a prototype  wooden tablets device for a colour’s code for blind people. She shared in one lesson of my Ethnoscience Course about “The colours of darkness” (a.a.2004/05 Ca’ Foscari University, Venezia). My course dealt with one of more frequented and still “intriguing” argument in Etthnoscience and wanted to verify the common belief that in our western culture colours had begun an abstract concept: it is not so. This matter allowed us to go on building a cultural colour’s code for born and later blind. 

We were confirmed that colour’s perception in normally sighted people in the same way arises from

personal , emotional and mnestic experience: so there is no absolute difference of manner in building colour’s cultural inventory by the sighted and the blind. This is very important for us.

Synesthesia actually belongs both to ones and others. Starting from the collected data (together with Pilar and a friend of mine, a born blind tyflologist) I try to build a synesthesic colour’s code that can be shared by the born blind, the later blind and sighted people nearly in the same way. 

Why a synesthesic code? Meanwhile perceptive psychology began to deprive synesthesia of its exceptionality (“Kandinskij’s desease” is really a natural fact), moreover Pilar convinced me it was the right way to take when she told me that the first sense she developed when she lost her sight was smell. (See “Ulisse” 07/11/2007 “The same foundation of sight and smell”; see also by Sharon Beagly, Ballantine Books, New York, 2007 “Train Your Mind. Change Your Brain”, a popular work on Brain Plasticity). 

To smell the sky, to listen to its sound, to feel the sky under fingers. First, to smell; second, to hear; third, to touch.

The starting point of my research could be of course the cultural colour’s perception (not the physical one, or the neurophysiological), because it is the only one by which I can build an active code that allows blind people to use all his/her regular senses in synesthesic procedure ( I don’t like the expression “residual senses”, and I’ve learnt that compensatory senses don’t exist.

The ethnoscientific research on colours by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (the same, 1969, Basic Color Terms, Berkeley, University of California Press) has been, as I said, the starting point of my work.

Those two Researchers analysed the chromonyms to be used by different cultural societies, whose members share the same anthropological colour’s vision, that is they subdivide in similar way the solar spectrum into basic cultural areas between two and eleven colours. Furthermore each colour’s focus, that is its saturation point, is actually widely shared.

Areas’ succession is culturally determinate and follows an evolving principle: we have an early stage of two colours (black/white), a second stage (red), then the third (yellow/green), the fourth (blue), the fifth (brown), the sixth stage finally (violet/pink/grey/orange).

The same researchers and other ones afterwards redefined the sequence, without disproving it: Japanese culture for instance, doesn’t separate blue and green, it is at the stage of “breen”(turquoise more or less) as we say in Ethnoscience (“blerde” in Italian). So we decided to accept the eleven colour’s stage in building our first wooden device and the consistent proceeding to put together smells, sounds, and aptic perceptions by synesthesia. 

I’d like to make it clear that choosing cultural colour’s perception rises by priority from the account that the accepted proceeding for building the eleven colour’s code is the same that the blind adopt for building their idea of their own preferred colour. That is to say a proceeding to make together with the blind and not for the blind, whose contribution have been and will be of primary importance for every further development in the proceeding.

Before describing our prototype tool and its first use, more precise information is necessary.

The eleven colour’s code (and its expansion to 33 by the addition of one “more light/dark” to each of them; I used Munsell Chart as a guide) like all codes is agreed and arbitrary in cultural way, of course. Similarly in 1669 Newton broke down solar spectrum into five colours at the first: red, yellow, green, blue, violet; in 1671 he added orange and indigo in order to get to seven colours: seven is  of course a very symbolic number in our cultures. Actually we know that solar spectrum is a continuum that we can segment in many thousands of colours. So cultural colour code’s conventionality and  arbitrariness allow us to connect this with others highly cultural codes as the one of smells (and flavours), and with others codes more or less natural/cultural: sounds and aptic perceptions.

As matters stand we have to do a very long and painstaking piece of ethnolinguistic and psychological research in order to each colour is synesthesically connected with only one smell, one sound, one aptic perception in each different culture (as it happens with IPA International Phonetics Alphabet that achieves the connection one sound/one sign). That is very important in order to make synesthesic code working and cultural differences bearing in mind (remember Japanese “breen”). 

We built our first device with on three lines 33 wooden tablets (cm 4 X cm 8: we arranged their measure together with the tyflologist); they lie on a wooden “tray” with its lower side opened; the tablets range in neat rows the eleven basic colours. Each tablet’s surface is simply covered with coloured paper (11 colours) and has an aptic mark- detecting colour on its lower left side.  First we chose geometrical figures (triangle, square, etc.) as mark; later a similar Braille code took the place of figure, because the tyflologist warned it would be “dangerous” to use well-known geometrical figures: colour could be perceived and identified as a figure, causing the synesthesia to be wiped out.

Then we build a point conventional code (like Braille code) identifying each colour and allowing through others additional points to mean more clear/more dark shade. I thought it was worst the possibility to use colour’s name by Braille code because the lack of communication  among different natural languages of the blind, and it would be impossible meaning colour’s shade by Braille code.

Further step: we linked olfactory and aptic perception of a matter (not of a shape) to each eleven colours: for instance black was linked to olfactory and aptic perception of crushed coal.  Linking colour/sound has been more difficult: we empirically to each colour a clear/dark piano G clef note or chord.

All the matter is still very rough and even approximate, but it works.

Latest step: out of synesthesia, because the blind and impaired vision people we met required it, we have to write and record a micro-story to supplement each colours perception . 

The prototype device organizes colours perceptive learning like this:

  • hearing micro-story ( natural speech record, software synthesizer as Jaws cannot signify the moving micro-story);
  • handling tablets and knowing colour’s point code;
  • synesthesic olfactory, aptic, acoustic perception:
  • exercises: re-handling tablets and knowing the three tablets of the same colour on the wooden tray.


Of course it takes a good training to know and practice eleven colours with assurance: Pilar in few time really went so far as to build mosaics, and even schematic evocative picture of spring colours landscape. 

As matter stand one could ask why a way for colour’s perception by the blind had to be seek, when there are many advanced techniques allowing perceiving plastic and figurative  works of art by touch. a good answer: we see the things in colour; the blind always keep it in their minds. Neurosciences give us one more relevant answer (remember “the same foundation of sight and smell”). But the most complete answer was given to me by Pilar : when one talks of paintings “looks also count”, all the more that colours and shape are the same thing. So photographs, so illustrations. Written tales are stained too.

Furthermore synesthesia and the recent discovery that sight and smell are closely related, have begun using  primarily touch of secondary importance. A blind person, especially an early one, doesn’t touch spontaneously;  sense of touch needs a long training: we can observe nowadays the suitable worry about code Braille low frequency teaching. I am convinced that aesthetic perception for the blind will be synesthesic perception that places more spontaneous senses of smell and hear, before touch, without excluding it. 

I end my article with very keen observations by Yvette Hatwell (see her article Perception and aptic imagination proceedings. Their implications by impaired vision people in fine arts aptic understanding, “Tiflologia per l’Integrazione, n.1, January-March 2004): 

“Analysing choices by publishers and devisers of artistic materials for the blind, Martinez-Sarocchi (Hatwell&Martinez-Sarocchi, to be print) opposes two guidelines. The first of these favours cognitive side in works of art. In order to avoid “verbalism” disliked by educators and teachers, the original work relief printing is oversimplified: a Braille text (or a tape cassette) expounds artist’s purpose and career (for instance Monet’s “Nympheas”). This choice makes shapes’ identifying and interpretation easier, but rarely gives true aesthetic delight (…).

Another choice favours, on the contrary, an immediate aesthetic emotion. So painting works are reproduced  in relief nearly integrally for giving to the blind the artist’s true purpose. But that often gives little result, the early blind especially often are deceived by the complexity of the work of art they are searching by touch (…). As the blind are always bound to use touch by “cognitive” way of knowing, they hardly use their aptic perception to feel aesthetic emotion”. 

I am acquainted with numerous efforts that try bringing the blind to perceive colours, but I am convinced the first step to do has to create a colour’s code that can be shared by all the blind and all the sighted people. Starting from this point we have begun probing into figure/background perception. 

The ICT most advanced technologies will give us key opportunity both for personal enjoyment, and for museums’ accessibility.


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