|This article appears in the February 4, 2011 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.
Helen Keller: Mind Over Instrumentation
by Meghan Rouillard
In his recent report, "What Makes Sense," Lyndon LaRouche refers to the case of Helen Keller (1880-1968), as a case which can provoke us to think about the relationship between the human sensorium and the power of the human mind. LaRouche writes:
Let us examine this, here, by exploring aspects of her case, which, although extraordinary, is the case of how a human being is capable of operating with an impaired sensorium.
Helen's account of her senses begins with the "seeing hand" of the "blind seeing," the sense of touch, which she says is unique:
However, she says she is not in a position to say whether vision or touch is a better sense to have. Smell for her is "the fallen angel" of the senses.
On the one hand, Keller clearly demonstrates and expresses the capability to "milk," if you will, her other senses more than most of us are able to. Her descriptions of these impressions are surely more vivid than for those of us who are neither blind nor deaf. But studies have shown that she did not, in fact, have senses that were extraordinary relative to our own (those of us with vision and hearing, that is). This, and Helen's own words, will point us to an important fact about the power of the human mind over the senses.
In 1928, University of Chicago neurologist Dr. Frederick Tilney spent time with Keller and tested the acuity of her senses of touch and smell, as compared with those of people who have optimal vision and hearing. The results were rather surprising. Helen's sense of touch and smell registered as no more keen than average. Dr. Tilney, in his research paper, a comparative sensory analysis of Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman, had hypothesized that Keller's sense of smell must have contributed significantly to her development; Bridgman lacked this sense, in addition to sight and hearing. Among other differences, Bridgman's command of language was much less developed than Keller's. The following is an account of Tilney's test of Keller's sense of smell:
To Dr. Tilney's surprise, his tests of Helen's olfactory sense showed that it was no more keen than that of the so-called average person. Tilney cites a letter from Keller to himself, written at his request, on her impressions of the sense of smell. In it she referenced various passages from Shakespeare's plays, Greek philosophers, and the Bible, in which she thought the sense of smell was referenced in an especially poetic way. He also tested the other sense which we might assume was a kind of supersense for Helen Keller, that of touch. He tested various aspects, such as localization, pressure, temperature, vibration, and found, in each and every case, that she scored only average.
An interesting side note regarding these tests, which alludes to another part of this report, is the reason given, at the time, to account for the discrepancy in "sense of direction" between Keller and Bridgman. This was a feature of the balance test. The action of spinning in a chair was only sensed by Keller by the wind blowing on her face. She experienced no other feeling associated with it. For Bridgman, there was more sensation involved, including dizziness, which Keller did not feel. Bridgman could also more accurately determine the difference between the direction she faced in the chair before and after bring turned. Interestingly, Dr. Tilney attributed this difference in "sense of direction" to
This is a provocative point to consider, but the results of these studies, and the further work since done on this, have not been explored much, and will not be addressed further here, but it should be kept in mind in the context of this entire report.
Of course, we can question the kinds of tests which were performed, in terms of measuring the senses, but the results, and Dr. Tilney's ultimate conclusion, are interesting, nonetheless. On the one hand, we can ask whether the tests for the senses, in fact, test all of their possible dimensionalities. The possibility that they did not, and still do not, is alluded to in various other reports here. The other conclusion which can be drawn, is, in a sense, Dr. Tilney's own main conclusion, that, "Miss Keller's sensory organization for the primary conduction of afferent impulses thus does not appear to be different from that of the average run of humanity. Her sensory supremacy is entirely in the realm of the intellect."
He further specified that he thought that, "the great difference exists in her use of the senses by the development of her brain." He referred to the parietal lobe being potentially very developed, but this was not tested. The ability to test neuroplasticity was not available in 1928for example, those investigations as to whether parts of Helen's brain, which would have been activated through the senses of sound and sight, were otherwise engaged. Tilney's suggestion that she appeared to be using more of her brain than we five-sensed creatures remains somewhat ambiguous as to its meaning, and it is a question we cannot answer now through studying her brain, of course.
Regardless, what we will be confronted with here, is that Helen's mind may have been more engaged and active than those of some typical seeing and hearing members of the population. How? Through some more active "higher brain functions"? Was it through the tools of irony and metaphor, those associated with human creativity? Whether or not Dr. Tilney spoke of this per se, it was clearly on his mind, and it is for you to judge based on the facts of her case.
The Analogy of the Senses
In addition to an added reliance on her senses of smell, taste, and touch, Helen also used what she called analogies, among these senses, to fill in for the missing senses, such as vision, whose impressions she adduced from a sense of taste. Today, we might call this a kind of synesthesia. She says of it:
She is attacked sometimes for using such controversial imagery as "color" in her poetry. For, of course, according to such critics, she does not understand the right idea of color. Keller's obituary recounts the story of one particular reaction to her 1902 autobiography:
Sense perceptions clearly vary from individual to individual, another reason why a single visual perception, for example, is not reality. She agrees that her concept of color may not be the same as mine, or yours, but insists that her own thoughts do not lack that attribute. We may ask ourselves the questionwas she tuned into some other dimensionality of these senses? LaRouche has now made this a provocative point to consider. But we can also ask ourselves how the power of the human mind itself serves to overcome these frailties. On this she says:
Let us explore for a bit this philosophical debate.
The Mind's Role
In 1886, six years after Helen Keller's birth, Ernst Mach, associated with the positivist school of thought, said that the only thing which is, in fact, real, is the sum of our sense impression; the human soul is the receptacle for these impressions, nothing more. It is as though Mach would say, that when we stop seeing and hearing, we lose 40% of ourselves, since 40% of so-called reality is no longer accessible to us through our senses.
From Mach's Contributions to the Analysis of Sensations, "The Sensations as Elements: Antimetaphysical":
We can imagine the 12-year-old Keller, taunting the misanthropic Mach: "Mind, mind alone, is life and hope and light and power!" Keller was clearly no philosophical student of Mach:
In addition to her own words, Keller's very existence shows Mach's outlook to be problematic in several ways. On the one hand, we can ask ourselves whether losing the ability to perceive visible light really means losing vision entirely, and she herself questions this:
But more important, reflect on the point which became a source of much contention between Mach and the behaviorist school in psychology, on the one hand, and the likes of Max Planck and Wolfgang Köhler, on the other. What is implied in the writings by these latter two scientists, is that, that which we know to be real is first and foremost our own thoughts. Of course, we can test their efficiency; and the conceptions communicated by Helen Keller, about the nature of man, for example, resonate with us because they are true. Unlike the animals, we can create an efficient conception in the mind, known to be efficient because it can be tested experimentally. And if it represents a true discovery, it would represent, in potential, a complete break from all that we have experienced. But, the main point missed by Mach, and the most glaring thing that he cannot account for, is that after one's death, something real, in terms of something efficient, does persist. Something which has no sensual perceptions, but whose presence can be powerful in its effect.
As Helen Keller's case illustrates and reveals to us, the reality which is most important, is that which we know through the mind. It is that part of us which lives on, and acts when we are no longer able to perceive.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in a correspondence with the Prussian Queen Sophie Charlotte, elaborated why it is that, contrary to positivist belief, sense impressions are something other than truth which the mind gleans:
Max Planck, who refers to Leibniz in his writings, used this same example to convey the same idea, over 200 years later, against the positivists such as Mach.
He clarifies the fundamentally opposed outlooks himself:
But, he elaborates, this alone leaves out entirely the role of hypothesis, which no one can deny has been the source of science's achievements. He refers to the case of astronomy, as a science which has developed not simply because of the catalogued observations of individuals. The very nature of science as a study by mankind depends on recognizing the contradictory nature of various experiments done by various individuals, from which new conceptions must be developed. The unique conceptions of individuals, not simply their cataloguing of observations, is what has caused science and mankind to advance.
With Helen, we have a clear case of someone who thought of herself as having instrumentation, from which an image of reality could be gleaned through the mind; through generating a mental picture which can, potentially, be something completely efficient. She implies that her imagination is more actively engaged as a result of lacking the sense of vision. The particular burden of vision, as she describes it, is that sensing persons are less clear of the fact that their minds are forming a picture of reality from impressions of instruments. Reality is not being imparted from the eyes to the mind, which is simply a receptacle. Rather, the mind is always working to construct this picture of reality, and perhaps more so when the impressions are not being perceived at the same time, as with an image which can only be built up over time. At least the primacy of the mind's role may be more clear to the perceiver in this case. She says that she will not claim who generates a more efficient conception, the seer or the blind, who sees through touch, but, as her own writings show clearly, this woman, who could not see or hear, had a real sense of the power of her own mind, and an efficient conception of reality, which we know because her thoughts can move us, and can generate powerful ideas within our own minds.
She constructed an image of the universe outside of herself, and within herself, which, as we can attest from reading her writings, is not foreign to those of us who lack her impairments. We have suggested that Helen's senses, those she possessed, were not more powerful than our own. The question can be asked, to what extent was she also tuned more into dimensions of the senses than those associated with their characteristic impressions? Are there perhaps other aspects to which we are less sensitive, or simply less aware?
In a recent report, LaRouche, provocatively referred to the possible implications that the "extra senses" of animals had for the case of Helen Keller:
Some of Helen Keller's thoughts on this subject are provocative, and I think can be thought of in a new light in this context, in that they can point the mind in the direction of thinking about what, in fact, she was "tuned into," potentially from this standpoint of cosmic radiation. I think it is fair and appropriate to leave as a question provoked by her own words:
This quote from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound is also referred to by her, respecting her condition:
Is it really the case that the deaf cannot hear music? Keller says of the voice of a soprano, "When I read the lips of a woman whose voice is soprano, I note a low tone or a glad tone in the midst of a high, flowing voice." What was Helen enjoying when she "heard" the tenor Enrico Caruso, and was moved to tears? Vibrations? Or something more? Perhaps it involved a kind of sixth sense, as LaRouche has referred to, which perceives other characteristics of performed Classical music than simple audible sounds.
The critic from The Nation who reacted so strongly to Keller's use of the concept of color would probably be sent into a rage in response to the following, by Keller, on the work of the artist:
But could we deny that this woman herself was not a veritable poet? However, perhaps the most provocative question yet, is, how she developed her language capability, which seems to suggests a means that surpasses that of sense perception.
The Human Element
We can examine this question through reflecting again, now, upon a question posed by Lyndon LaRouche a couple of years ago: How did Keller know that her teacher was a member of the same species as herself? The answer does not lie in some kind of group communication signal, like that which we see in the cephalopods or the mantis shrimp.
As a young girl, before being introduced to her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Keller's relationship to the outside world was extremely limited. She describes herself as living in a "no-world." She says she responded mainly to sensory stimulation and desire, and did not understand that dogs and other animals were much different than she was. She only realized later that they did not have the cognitive powers which she says she only later developedrecognizing and reflecting on the fact that her earlier responses to these desires and sensations were not something fundamentally human.
Her role as part of a human species was made increasingly clear to her through the process of human interaction and communication, and this is clear from her own telling of her story. This question became more clear through specific kinds of interactions based on language. For example, being presented with a paradox, in language, as presented by her teacher. This word, which you thought you understood, also means this! She describes various experiences of this kind, where a flash of insight, almost like a flash of light, thus expanded her capability to communicate, and also, to think. When we learn that the word "love" can be used to describe an idea about the entire human species, and not simply the feelings about one person, we have a case of this. We make sense of this through a process of challenging our old idea, and this can put us at ease, in a certain way, through then knowing a more truthful idea. Perhaps an example of why Keller said Greek was her favorite language, had to do with the more precise words, in this language, to indicate the different meanings in this case.
This process of overthrowing old conceptions is actually what any young child experiences learning a language, and the child's universe expands through this process. Dr. Tilney had also concluded that the main explanation for the overall difference in the development of Laura Bridgman and Keller, lay in the different approaches to introducing them to language and to society. Bridgman, who only used 50-60 monosyllablic sounds, which were not words, but were known to those who knew her, led a life which was much more isolated, and her education was halted at 20 years of age.
It would seem that, in order to explain the clear quality of genius, and the ability to overcome a sensory handicap in a person like Keller, if it were not able to be explained by senses or supersenses, as Dr. Tilney concluded, then perhaps it was primarily through something like paradox, something which involves the contradiction between experiences. The ability to comprehend a paradox is what arms us with the highest powers of language, which can be learned precisely because we can grasp ideas which bridge single sense impressions, and can develop through such a means.
Let us continue to dwell on this, because it would seem that the answer lies beyond sense perception or information: We can ask ourselves how one would teach a blind and deaf child concepts which were not merely the names of objects. Initially, when Helen was taught the word "to think," it was a word which her teacher Anne Sullivan wrote on her head while Helen was beading a necklace. Keller said this made sense. But how was she then able, later in life, to wield the power of this word in such a different context? For example, we have these much more advanced uses of the word thought:
Clearly, we can only bridge this gap through conceiving of the mind resolving new paradoxical uses of this idea over time. Here we have a hint as to a kind of characteristic of the mind which is transcendental to the declarative statements of information presented to it. Sullivan reveals in the journal that she kept throughout her years of teaching Helen, a Platonic view of the human mind, as opposed to the outlook which she found to be more prevalent among educators. Keller herself said that a deaf-blind person could find special meaning in the writings of Plato. Sullivan wrote that the more typical and cynical outlook reflected the idea that "Every child is an idiot which must be taught to think." Sullivan's own experience in teaching Helen taught her otherwise, and she approached the task, from the beginning, with confidence in another view. She wrote:
She insisted on speaking to Helen in complete sentences, so that she could "catch from context the meaning of those words she did not know," and did not overly explain words which were new: "Little by little the meaning will come to her."
Informed by this outlook, Sullivan had the confidence that there was an activity of the mind which superseded sense impressions, here, in the form of communicated words. As we have seen, Helen herself was later able to wield the power of language, by which we change our self-conception as a species. As a human species, we, unlike the animals, have this power to hone the powers of the mind, and to increase our power over nature. Unlike the animals, who do this through cleaning their instruments, as Keller herself says of our role, "All men shall bring mind and soul to the control of matter."
In reviewing the facts of the case of Helen Keller, it seems that it is our ability to grasp various levels of irony which permits the true development of the human species, in science, and in language. For without that, there is no pathway by which a blind and deaf girl could develop a broader concept of love, for example, another of the first concepts she learned, than that associated with her first experience of it. But this same word took on a far greater meaning over time, which became as great as mankind and his garden, the Earth, of which she spoke and wrote, but whose characteristics she was never able to sensually perceive in the same sense as one with five optimally functioning senses. Let us keep this case in mind as we explore the differences and similarities between the human and animal sensoriums in the rest of this report.
 Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1907), in New York Review of Books, 2003.
 Frederick A. Tilney, "Comparative Sensory Analysis of Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman," Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 1928.
 Emily C. Davis, "Helen Keller Shows Future of Brain," The Science Newsletter, Vol. 14, No. 387 (Sept. 8, 1928) pp. 141-42, 147-48.
 Ernst Mach, The Classical Psychologists," compiled by Benjamin Rand, PhD (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912).
 Or, as one of Newton's worst enemies pointed out to me, see the end of Newton's Principia, to the same effect: "What the real substance of any thing is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours. We hear only the sounds. We touch only their outward surfaces. We smell only the smells, and taste the flavours; but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds...." See Michael Kirsch's report on the history of empiricism.
 G.W. Leibniz, "On the Supersensible Element in Knowledge, and "On the Immaterial in Nature," Philosophical Essays (1702), trans. by Roger Ariew, and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1989).
 Max Planck, Where is Science Going? (Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow Press, 1981).
 Jean Sherwood Rankin, "Helen Keller and the Language Teaching Problem," [[PUBLICATION?]] Vol. 9, No. 2 (October 1908), pp. 84-93.
 Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1902) (New York: Bantam Classic Reissue, 2005).