Yesterday, in a fossil and gem shop in Taos, New Mexico, I saw a friend guide the hand of a young woman over the surface of a fossil. The young woman, whose long brown hair was swept back in a ponytail, carried a white cane, and a look of delight played across her face as her fingers brushed the rough surface.
What a wonderful tactile experience! I thought. Nearly the entire range of information available to a sighted person in examining a fossil is also available to a person without vision. It’s not the color of a trilobite that draws us: it’s the tight, curved ridges that seem like ribs, and the rounded head, and the flatness of the whole. What about feeling the spiral of an ammonite, or the ridged fins of a fossil fish? A person with sensitive touch can probably glean more about the nature of fossil structure than a sighted person who is too shy to touch.
Luckily, the shop owner seemed delighted to share his riches through touch. Fossils that have survived millennia are unlikely, after all, to be destroyed by the touch of one set of fingers.
Asking children sometimes to touch with their eyes closed may be an effective way to help them empathize with the visually impaired. But more than that, it’s also a way of asking them to quiet their minds, so often assaulted with flashing images, and concentrate on another sense. In examining stones, fossils, or even something as soft as flowers, they may find that more, newer, deeper information comes to them find delight in the subtle information that flows from their fingertips.
We know that concentrating on touch they can activate new parts of our brains, or activate old parts in new ways. A few years ago, a Nova episode showed that adults whose eyes are covered for just a few days as they study Braille begin to activate parts of their visual cortex through touch alone. When the blind artist Esref Armagan draws, his visual cortex lights up on MRI, although he has never seen. So maybe we should all try informing ourselves through touch sometimes. What do different spoons feel like? Can you tell different books apart by the thickness and gloss of their paper? Can you feel the surface of a fruit and imagine it all sorts of different colors? Could you learn to knit with your eyes closed? What other exercises to stretch your “touching brain” can you imagine?
Check out our new picture book book about Esref Armagan – Painting in the Dark: