The invisible world made visible—for 90 minutes, for one woman
Alex Spiegel reports on NPR:
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the latest episode of the Invisibilia podcast and program, which is broadcast on participating public radio stations.
Until she was 54 years old, Kim was totally unaware that there were things in the world she couldn’t see.
“This was the whole problem,” Kim says. “I had no clue what the problem was.”
All Kim knew was that over and over and over again the world didn’t respond the way she expected. People would say things and do things that seemed completely unrelated to what was actually going on. It happened all the time.
Once, as a kid at summer camp, she saw two girls trying to put up a sail on a sailboat. “And I’m always really good at doing that kind of stuff, and I looked at them and I could see what their problem was,” she says. And so she walked up to them, explained that she could help, could show them how to do it.
“And they were mad at me,” she says. The girls started screaming, telling her to go away.
“It was so strange,” she remembers. “It was like … why would they be mad when I’m trying to help them? That makes absolutely no sense. I don’t understand that.”
That was in 1966, when Kim was 12. More than 40 years later, after a researcher spent 30 minutes pressing a fancy magnet to the top of her head, Kim would finally experience firsthand the critical element of the sailing scene that she had missed in 1966: the subtle emotions swirling around.
“I didn’t realize that the overall context was that these people are having a relationship,” Kim says. “I didn’t see things that way. What I would see is the physical aspect of it: There are two people here; they’re on a boat. The boat needs to have the sail go up before it they can sail; therefore, they need help with the sail.”
Now she realizes there was much more happening. It wasn’t just that “those two people are talking.” They were friends, enjoying each other’s company. That was the primary event, not getting ready to sail.
We all carry in our heads invisible frames of reference that filter our experience and shape the way we see the world around us. Those frames are the product of many things — our cultural experience, our assumptions, but also our biology and the way the biology of our particular mind focuses our attention in the world.
Kim’s brain is not great at seeing emotion. When she looks out at the world she physically sees all the things that most people see, but with much of the emotion subtracted. She sees the same tables, the planes, the trees … the people moving back and forth. But the feelings — particularly the subtle ones — are invisible. Though for most of her life she didn’t realize that.
“This is the interesting thing,” Kim says. “We believe our senses, so I didn’t know I was missing anything. If I’m seeing people talking and it simply looks like people are talking, why should I think that they might be feeling angry or sad or anything, if I’m not sensing that?” . . .
There’s more at the link, including the podcast itself.