Vision is not black and white

The colourless case of Mr I
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Published in Rapport, 34, Winter 1996

While reading Oliver Sacks’ latest book, An Anthropologist on Mars, I was excited to discover how many of the conclusions from his lifelong study of people with unusual neurological conditions could be mapped directly onto an NLP framework.

This article gives a brief description of Sacks’ research with one particular patient. It describes how Sacks’ findings can be used to enrich the NLP model and how an NLP perspective can make sense of the functioning of the brain.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is best known for his book Awakenings which was made into a film starring Robin Williams who portrayed Sacks. The film is about his work with patients who suffered for decades with semi-comatose symptoms after contracting encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.

With the same reverence and wonder, Sacks’ portrays highly technical brain functioning in obscure terminology and an individual’s personal way of adapting to their circumstances. His books go far beyond descriptions of changes in physiology to investigate the effect on a person’s sense of identity .

Mr. I: The colour-blind painter

In The Case of the Colour-blind Painter, Oliver Sacks describes a man who, as a result of a car accident, suffered an unusual condition. Mr. I, as Sacks calls him, described his symptoms as:

“My vision was such that everything appeared to me as a black and white television screen … my vision became that of an eagle – I can see a worm wiggling a block away. The sharpness of focus is incredible. But – I AM TOTALLY COLOUR-BLIND.”

After numerous tests the doctors could discover no dysfunction of the eye and concluded he had the very rare cerebral achromatopsia – total colour blindness caused by brain damage. What makes this condition unusual, is that Mr I retained an awareness of colour even though he could only see shades of back and white. This distinguished the symptoms from visual agnosia – where the person loses all sense of colour and therefore does not know they have ‘lost’ the faculty.

When Mr I ‘saw’ colours as shades of grey he felt uncomfortable because he knew he was not seeing “real black and white”. For instance he found it unpleasant to watch a colour television and more natural to watch a black and white TV. His acuity in this respect even extended to being able to distinguish between a black and white TV and a colour screen with the colour turned down!

What is particularly revealing is that Mr I was a successful artist and was able to give graphic descriptions of his internal (and therefore external) world. To him it made no difference if he was looking with his eyes open, or attempting to imagine colours, or remembering scenes that he knew had colour or during his dreams – he only saw “awful and disgusting” shades of grey. Interestingly he retained a verbal memory of colours and so could discuss the 256 colours of the Pantone chart and the finer aspects of hues without being able to see what he was talking about.

It was not that he just saw in black and white, it was like he saw a black and white photocopy of what he knew to be a colour photograph.

Animated grey statues

His response to the loss of a fundamental faculty for an artist was to shun social and sexual intercourse as everyone one, including himself, looked like “animated grey statues”. Food became disgusting due to its dead appearance – a black tomato looses its appeal somewhat – even when he ate with his eyes closed! Life started to loose meaning for him and if he could not go on painting he “wouldn’t want to go on at all”.

To provide some relief, and to be able to explain what was happening to his family and friends he started to transform his external world to match his internal perception. He turned to eating black olives, white rice, black coffee, and natural yoghurt! Even redecorating a room entirely in black, white and grey did not fully reflect his world, as he could not turn visitor’s flesh into an “abhorrent grey”. He even considered trading his brown Labrador for a Dalmatian!

An NLP perspective

NLP operates from the premise that we each create ‘maps of reality’ which are based on internal representations of the five sensory modalities: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. The specific sensory qualities of each of these modalities are called sub-modalities. For example, visual sub-modalities include colour, shape, movement, brightness, focus, etc. Auditory sub-modalities include volume, pitch, tempo, etc. Kinesthetic sub-modalities include pressure, temperature, texture, location, etc.

From an NLP viewpoint, Mr I’s symptoms make perfect sense if we think of him as loosing the submodality distinction of colour in his visual representational system. What is fascinating is that his kinesthetic representational system continued to respond to the mismatch between his pre- and post-accident perceptions; he felt something was wrong. Similarly, his ability to represent the concept of colour in language remained unaffected.

In addition, the sub-modality of focus was heightened. And, as was later discovered, this depended on the quality of the prevailing light!

Robert Dilts’ model of Neuro-logical Levels of experience also gives us insight into Mr I’s condition. At the Environmental level he experienced a physical change in his brain. This resulted in a reduction of choice at the levels of Behaviour and Capability (he lost his ability to paint in colour). This in turn affected his Beliefs and Values, regarding food and people for instance. Very quickly the changes at the lower levels called into question his Identity as an artist. From here he experienced doubts about the meaning in his life and the contribution he could make to something more than himself, ie. the Spiritual level.

Mr I’s case clearly shows how dramatic change can occur ‘from the bottom up’ the Neuro-logical Levels.

Re-constructed memory

Mr I could not remember colour even from memories which he knew he had experienced in colour. This evidence supports Gerald Edelman’s contention that memories are’re-constructed’ each time we remember them and do not exist as separate entities stored in a mythical filing cabinet.

It explains how characteristics of memories are amenable to change through various NLP Change Personal History techniques. The recent publicity of the detrimental implanting of ‘false memories’ by unskilled therapists highlights the importance of facilitating changes that are ‘ecological’ for the client.

The sun rises like a bomb

What happened in the 3 years following the accident and while Oliver Sacks was examining Mr I is even more revealing.

One morning while driving (by now he had learnt to recognise stop lights by location and not colour!) he saw the sun rise. He realised the blazing reds had all turned to black “like a bomb, like some enormous nuclear explosion”. It dawned on him that no one had ever seen a sun rise in this way before. In that moment, Mr. I was inspired to start painting again; this time in black and white. Over the next few months he worked 15-18 hours a day producing dozens of paintings in a style and with a character he had never shown before.

Further tests showed that Mr I perceived colour by seeing tones of grey to a degree unknown by normally sighted or congenitally colour-blind people. How was he able to do this?

Visual erception

Recent research into visual perception has revealed that colour recognition requires a minimum of three sub-systems to be functioning: Physical receptors (ie. the cones in the eyes); wavelenght-sensitive cells (apparently located in an area of the brain known as V1); and a higher order colour-generating mechanism (located in the V4 region). These three process need to work in harmony to yield the perception of colour.

Tests revealed that for Mr I, the higher order colour-generating mechanism was not functioning. However the other two processes were operating perfectly. Mr I was able to recognise variations in colour by the comparative wavelength of the reflected light without being able to see colour!

Sacks tells us that Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid, was the first to demonstrate that recognition of colour is a comparative process, requiring two comparisons: first of the reflectance of all surfaces in a scene within a certain group of wavelengths, a waveband; and second, a comparison of the three separate wavebands which correspond roughly to the red, green and blue wavelengths. This second comparison generates the colour.

All colour sighted people apparently have both faculties but have no awareness of the individual functions. Subtle textures and patterns, normally obscured to the rest of us, because of their embedding in colour, now stood out for Mr I. As Oliver Sacks puts it:

“His brain damage had made him privy to, indeed trapped him within, a strange in-between state – the uncanny world of V1 – a world of anomalous and, so to speak, prechromatic sensation, which could not be categorised as either coloured or colourless” .

What happened next is remarkable.

The uncanny world of V1

Mr I started to become fascinated with the beauty of his alien world. He began to see his vision as “highly refined and privileged, that sees a world of pure form, uncluttered by colour”. He realised he was most comfortable at night and became “a night person”; his night vision far exceeding that of normally sighted people.

As the years passed, Mr I started to become less sure he ‘knew’ colours. It was as if, unsupported by actual experience or image, his colour associations began to weaken. Apparently, this type of forgetting is also common when sighted people loose the use of their vision.

About three years after the accident a specialist thought that he might be able to retrain Mr I’s brain to see colour. Mr I’s response to the suggestion was “unintelligible and repugnant”. Now that colour had lost its former associations he no longer desired for its restoration. That would have disrupted the now established visual order of his world and removed his strange gift.

Maps and Territory

Mr. I shows us that colours are not ‘out there’ in the world or an automatic correlate of wavelength but, rather, are constructed by the brain and require a form of ‘unconscious judgment’ to take place. The map is most definitely not the territory.

Looking at this through our NLP filters, we can see that comparative wavelength recognition is a sub-sub-modality of colour. One that we are normally not aware of as a separate function. Is it possible for us to become aware of it?

Carlos Castenada reports how his teacher Don Juan was able to keep his footing while running at fast speeds in the desert at night, even without moonlight. On one occasion, Castenada, spurred on by extreme fear, found himself being able to do the same. Perhaps they were responding to comparative wavelength information and hence greatly increased their night vision like that of Mr I.

In NLP, the change experienced by Mr I when he saw the sun rise is called Reframing. Nothing changed except the meaning he associated with his response – and hence everything changed. Mr I realised he had a unique contribution to make and he could continue to be a painter, of a different form. Thus his Beliefs changed and, over time, his Capabilities expanded to the use of black and white as a medium for his ‘unique gift’; so the change at the ‘top’ of the Logical Levels reverberated all the way down to the Environment in the form of new paintings.


R Bandler & J Grinder, Reframing (1982).

R Bandler & W MacDonald, An insiders guide to Sub-Modalities (1988).

C Castaneda, Tales of Power (1974).

R Dilts, Changing Belief Systems with NLP (1990).

G Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992).

O Sacks, Awakenings (1973).

O Sacks, An Anthropologist from Mars (1995).

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