Seeing a rich grey world
I recently read The Island of the Colour-Blind and Cycad Island by neurologist and writer Dr Oliver Sacks. It is an account of the neurologist’s travels to Pacific Islands to understand medical conditions that have become endemic in these islands and why and how they came to be so. The book is also an exploration of how a multitude of events (often unrelated) and the resulting circumstances affect isolated populations, and the continued impacts on several generations of these communities.
The first part recounts Sacks’s travel and experience in the Caroline Islands (an archipelago of tiny islands and atolls), part of the Federated States of Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean. On the atoll of Pingelap and the island of Pohnpei Sacks examines the very high incidence of complete colour-blindness in the population. As a result of natural disasters that wiped out the majority of the population, the incidence of congenital colour-blindness (achromatopsia) increased with the need for inter-marriage within the small remaining population in order to survive.
People born with this condition only see in shades of black, white and grey. Achromatopsia also affects tolerance and sensitivity to light, perception and night vision. This part of the book is an interesting exploration of how people can or must ‘see’ the world around them in different ways, and how they adapt to their situations.
Seeing the world without any colour is hard to imagine when it is such a crucial component of perception for most people. However, the perception of colour itself is contentious. Colour is in many ways a social and cultural construct. What each of us conceives of any colour may be dictated by cultural and social norms, which in turn can be dictated by the surrounding environment. The different colours used for mourning and death provide an example. In many Western cultures black often signifies death, with black clothing often worn at funerals or when mourning. In many Asian cultures death and mourning are symbolised by white, with white clothing worn at funerals. Note the tradition in some European cultures where widows have worn only black. In Indian culture widows traditionally have only worn white.
Ascribing any cultural or social symbolism to a colour would be meaningless to someone with achromatopsia, for example, the common use of green to mean ‘go’ and red to mean ‘stop’ in traffic signals. In The Island of the Colour-Blind Sacks notes that despite never having seen any colour in their lives, people who are colour-blind find a lot of depth and richness in the shades of black, white and grey they see. Never having seen colour, there can be no concept of colour. Their perception of the world, although devoid of colour, is no less rich and full. Furthermore, as a result of the achromatopsia, people seem to have more acute night vision and are more comfortable seeing in the dark.
The insight the book gives on the lives of people with achromatopsia shows just how much our perceptions shape our own views of the world and how we take this for granted. That there are so many different ways of (literally) seeing the world and living in it is something that is often forgotten. Our various experiences and interactions with others shape us as individuals and communities and often we see the world through these personal experiences.
For the people of Pingelap and Pohnpei with achromatopsia, nature, environment, geography, history and circumstance conspired to determine their particular fate. Sacks recounts that sadly there is little in the way of assistance available to the colour-blind that would enable them to lead more ‘regular’ lives. The condition leaves many with few options for the future. However, acceptance and understanding within their societies, and living among many others with achromatopsia means that an individual with this rare condition may not feel isolated or misunderstood. They have the support of their community, which may not be the case for those with achromatopsia in other parts of the world, who so may feel a sense of desperate isolation, as there would likely be little understanding in their societies of the condition and its impacts.
This same sense of community is strongly conveyed in the second part of the book, Cycad Island. Sacks recounts his travel to Guam to investigate a degenerative paralysis endemic (lytico-bodig), which is little understood. The origins of the disease, or diseases, are a mystery. Sacks examines the possibility that the island’s environment and historical circumstances hold clues to the mystery, especially the ancient cycad trees on the island. While there is little hope for improvement for those already affected by lytico-bodig, the compassion and care shown for people with the disease by the community is humbling. Sacks notes that although there may not be much medical or technical understanding of the disease in Guam, there is a great deal of understanding of how to manage the disease and the symptoms, and help affected people continue living within their communities with dignity and respect.
The book contains a lot of very technical facts and information. It also contains a lot of background, history, and personal accounts related (sometimes loosely) to the islands, culture, and science, and sometimes other unrelated additional information, which makes reading it all the more rewarding. Sacks’s genuine interest, curiosity and fascination with islands, their histories, isolation, societies, cultures, environments and people, brings a great amount of personal warmth to this book.
Some interesting videos and articles on colour and perception:
Neil Harbisson: I listen to colour – http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color.html
Do you see what I see? – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14421303
Do we all see the same colours? – http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120209-do-we-all-see-the-same-colours/all