The Bizarre Story About The Blind Woman Who Could Hear Colours

4 Jan '2018 Life

She was happy she didn’t just see blackness

This story may sound bizarre, but it is actually true. Vanessa Potter was laid up by an unknown virus and went blind within 72 hours. After a while, she started hearing colours.

“As a television producer, my vision was my job, so I was desperate to see again.” Something like that – seeing – happened. The morning Vanessa started to see again, it was weird, almost supernatural. At first, she was happy she didn’t just see blackness. But then she realized she did not recognize anything around her, but only saw light shifts and a kind of grey fog.

“Over time, black lines started to appear, crudely constructing my visual landscape. These lines delineated windows and doorframes, but little else. Slowly the grey mist dissolved into a brown muddy haze that obscured anything more than a few feet away. Colour eluded me, and my family, padding softly around me at home, were hollow ghosts, skeletal figures with no solidity or humanness. Nothing looked like it should, and my children’s faces hovered agonisingly somewhere behind an opaque screen.”

“You are green,” she told the grass

Nobody understood

After a while, Vanessa felt like she was seeing a colour, but was unable to know what colour it was. Her world was still mostly black and white, but she had the feeling colours were talking to her. She couldn’t explain to other people, her family didn’t understand and even neurologists didn’t know what it was. Maybe her sensory system had gone cross wired?

Vanessa tried language to help her see the colours again. “You are green,” she told the grass. “I believed the more I stimulated my brain by observing the world around me and reminding myself what colour was, the more the damaged circuitry in my brain would reconnect and bring my normal vision back online. I found the more I did this, the more it worked.”

One day, Vanessa was walking down the street on the arm of her husband Ed. As they slowly walked along the road, they came across some blue recycling bins. “With my burgeoning vision still very distorted I could barely identify the swirling shapes in the distance as bins, but I could identify their colour as blue.

“I turned around to Ed, my jaw agape, unsure how to explain what had just happened.”


The moment I became aware of the nearest bin, I stumbled forward on my own. Fixating on the lid, I could see what I can only describe as a firework display. I knew I was registering the colour blue, but it was spitting and fizzing like an erratic sparkler. The entire surface of the bin was an unstable, frothing mass.

Mesmerised, I limped right up to the bin and reached out my right hand. I’m still not sure why I felt compelled to touch the bin, but I did. Feeling the hard plastic, I spoke the word “blue” out loud. The sparkling stopped immediately, and the bin became a flat, rather lifeless blue. Cautiously I stepped back, but to my astonishment, the blue fizzing started up again. I turned around to Ed, my jaw agape, unsure how to explain what had just happened.”

Apparently, the virus that struck Vanessa, also gave her some kind of synaesthesia, a rare condition which causes people to cross their senses. Some people are born with the condition, but Vanessa acquired it because of her blindness. “In my case, I had likely experienced two forms of acquired synaesthesia: one connecting colour and touch, and one connecting colour and spoken language. It is clear, however, that mine was an unusual case. In classic forms of colour synaesthesia there is no intelligible link between a certain stimulus (such as one of Janet’s letters) and the colour sensation it provokes. But for me, colour words were helping me see those same colours.”

Few have seen anything like what I have seen

Like a magician

“Few have seen anything like what I have seen. Most synaesthetes are born with the ability, but I have the unique perspective of having experienced a time before, during and after it, which makes the colour I see now all the more poignant.”

The extent to which my newly found synaesthesia helped my recovery is likely to remain shrouded in mystery, both to me and, for now, to science. However, I can’t shake the feeling that my synaesthesia acted like a magician, pulling back the curtain on the visual world. My brain knew what to do – it was showing me the colours I needed to see, even when the world went dark.


Source: Genetic Literacy

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