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Q & A: blind people and colors

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Q:
How do blind people come to know color?
- Andrea (age 21)
Tiffin University, Ohio
A:
It would seem as if a truly blind person (not just someone who is partially blind, or "legally" blind, or became blind sometime in life) would never be able to experience colors in the way that someone can see does. Nonetheless, we can describe in words all about what colors are.

Different wavelengths of visible light have different colors, and mixtures of light of different wavelengths have different colors. A blind person can feel the thermal energy deposited by light, and so can be convinced that light exists and carries energy. Then it is just a matter of description of what light is and its properties. I'm afraid that for a blind man this may remain abstract and unverifiable, and he may just have to take his friends' word for it all.

You can give a blind person a device that senses light and emits sound or shakes or something, depending on the dominant color of the light striking it. In that way, the blind person can explore what colors are present when and where, but it still may be a bit of an abstraction.

We do the same sorts of things in experimental science, since there are lots of things we cannot directly sense with our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin, but can sense with the aid of equipment. Such as infrared radiation, X-rays, lots of colorless, odorless gases, and other things.

Now that you mention it, there is a property of some elementary particles which is whimsically called "color", which plays the role of the electric charge, but for the strong nuclear force instead of the electromagnetic force. Color isn't directly observable, so in a great sense, we are all "blind" to this particular property. But it has lots of observable consequences, so we are happy with the abstraction, even if the name color is somewhat meaningless in this context.

Tom

(republished on 07/27/06)

Follow-Up #1: Art for a blind person?

Q:
is it possible, to create Work of art that a blind person can see, undersat or enjoy?
- azza (age 30)
Lorton, VA, USA
A:

Try music.

David


(published on 03/29/14)

Follow-up on this answer.