Reviewed by Annalee Newitz
Blindsight is about what happens when narratives are interrupted, neurologically and socially. New York Times journalist Chris Colin offers a fascinating snapshot of the life-changing car accident of B-movie director Simon Lewis, whose biggest claim to fame (other than CHUD 2) was the comedy Look Who's Talking. After being hit by a van going over 70 mph, Lewis was left with one third of his right brain hemisphere shut down. But he survived, offering his doctors (and us) a stunning vista on what it feels like to live inside a very non-neurotypical brain.
Lewis spent years in recovery, living a kind of half-conscious existence in his parents' home, slowly learning to read, write, and make movies again. Despite his seemingly-miraculous return to Hollywood as a wannabe B-movie director, Lewis still thinks in ways that are almost impossible to imagine. He exists in a world of "flat time," where he remembers everything that's happened to him, but not in the correct order. He can't tell whether that meeting he had took place before or after lunch. It gives him, Colin says, a contemplative, peaceful outlook on life - one that's earned him speaking gigs at Deepak Chopra conferences, and attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his online lectures about consciousness.
More interesting than Lewis' experience of flat time, however, is his peculiar form of blindness. Though he can't consciously see anything in his left visual field, he can still -- unconsciously -- pick up the shapes and colors in that part of his vision. In one test, a doctor held up a piece of paper and Lewis couldn't see the paper but knew what color it was. He's been diagnosed with "blindsight," a condition in which brain injuries render a person blind - but with some cognitive loopholes that permit sight. In Lewis' case, the effect has been that he believes his mind is functioning on a subconscious level as much as it is on a conscious one.
What does it feel like to live inside such a mind? That's been the focus of Lewis' work since teaching himself to read and write again -- he has plans to make a movie based on his unusual way of experiencing the world. Unfortunately his main insight appears to be similar to what you might read in a new age holistic health book. "He's come to regard [his perceptions] as a kind of sieve," Colin writes, "one that oddly inclines him toward more substantive perceptions and omits the frivolous."
One yearns for Colin to provide a kind of scientific counterpoint to Lewis' subjective experiences, explaining what possible neurological mechanisms underly them. In the Atavist app version, we do get lengthy additional text that fills in some of this background, but it might have worked better in the main body of the text itself. That's ultimately the main flaw in this essay. We don't get the outside perspective that would place Lewis' story in a larger context. Still, it's well worth reading, especially for Colin's insight into what happens to a man whose life revolves around storytelling when he loses his ability to view and to plot the narrative of his own life.
A note on text vs. app: I originally read this essay as a Kindle Single, which had none of the multimedia features of the Atavist app. When I read the Atavist version, there were a few extras, such as the scientific footnotes and some photos, which were a welcome addition. But most of the extras, like maps of every place mentioned in the story and a "timeline" of Lewis' life, were unnecessary.