Its an odd sight. A middle-aged blind man, fully reclined, drawing pictures of hammers and mugs and animal figurines on a special clipboard, which is balanced precariously on a pillow atop his ample stomach.

A half-dozen people buzz around him. One adjusts a towel under his neck to make him more comfortable, another wields a stopwatch and chants instructions to start doing this or stop doing that, and yet another translates everything into Turkish. A small group convenes in a corner to assess the proceedings. A few of us just stand around watching, and trying not to get in the way. The elaborate ritual is a practice run for an upcoming brain scan and the researchers want to get everything just right. Meanwhile, the man at the centre of all this attention, a blind painter, cracks jokes that keep everyone tittering.



The painter is Esref Armagan. And he is here in Boston to see if a peek inside his brain can explain how a man who has never seen can paint pictures that the sighted easily recognise – and even admire. He paints houses and mountains and lakes and faces and butterflies, but he’s never seen any of these things. He depicts colour, shadow and perspective, but it is not clear how he could have witnessed these things either. How does he do it?



Because if Armagan can represent images in the same way a sighted person can, it raises big questions not only about how our brains construct mental images, but also about the role those images play in seeing. Do we build up mental images using just our eyes or do other senses contribute too? How much can congenitally blind people really understand about space and the layout of objects within it? How much “seeing” does a blind person actually do?



Armagan was born 51 years ago in one of Istanbul’s poorer neighbourhoods. One of his eyes failed to develop beyond a rudimentary bud, the other is stunted and scarred. It is impossible to know if he had some vision as an infant, but he certainly never saw normally and his brain detects no light now. Few of the children in his neighbourhood were formally educated, and like them, he spent his early years playing in the streets. But Armagan’s blindness isolated him, and to pass the time, he turned to drawing. At first he just scratched in the dirt. But by age 6 he was using pencil and paper. At 18 he started painting with his fingers, first on paper, then on canvas with oils. At age 42 he discovered fast-drying acrylics.



His paintings are disarmingly realistic. And his skills are formidable. “I have tested blind people for decades,” says John Kennedy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, “and I have never seen a performance like his.” Kennedy’s first opportunity to meet and test Armagan in person was during a visit to New York last May, for a forum organised by a group called Art Education for the Blind. Armagan, who is something of a celebrity in Turkey, has become used to touring with his canvases to the Czech Republic, China, Italy and the Netherlands. What made this visit different was the interest shown by scientists – both Kennedy and a team from Boston.



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