The Art of Seeing Without Sight

Humans born without certain sensory receptors are often able to compensate for their incomplete physiology in extraordinary ways. This particular story of a blind painter is both remarkably perplexing and fascinating. Turkish painter Esref Armagan, blind since birth, can paint non-abstract imagery with overwhelming accuracy in terms of color and shape, without external assistance.

Esref was born unsighted, making him different from other blind painters who lost their vision at some point in their life and are still able to paint primarily from memory, and from partially blind individuals who can still faintly resolve shape and color. Rather, Esref is completely blind and has no visual memory of the objects he paints. And what does he paint? Windmills, houses, boats, various animals and even human portraits have been accurately recreated by Armagan’s hand.

What’s particularly interesting is the process he follows for each of his paintings. Esref creates a state of mind, or mood, which is based on the theme of the painting. For example, for a painting of the sea or boats, he might envision himself wearing a life jacket or have water sounds playing in the background. He usually prefers absolute silence while painting. For human portraits, he asks someone to trace a photograph of the person and he somehow creates the rest. His painting of Bill Clinton demonstrates his eerily homogenous results.

Cognitive scientists do not yet have an agreed-upon empirical or cognitive explanation for this phenomenon. Not surprisingly, Esref’s capabilities caught the attention of researchers, and he allowed neurobiologists to conduct scans of his brain while painting. Functional imaging scans revealed that his visual cortex behaves differently from sighted individuals. The visual cortex is the component of the brain tasked with interpreting visual information, and in Esref’s brain, it is active more often than in those with sight. Verbal recall and somatosensory input, for example, also activated his visual cortex region. These findings are consistent with scans of other people with varying degrees of visual impairment.

Beyond this knowledge, Esref’s seemingly “supernatural” ability is an unexplained phenomenon. Perhaps he has a unique gift or talent, or perhaps there are unidentified neurological interactions taking place in blind-since-birth individuals.

Esref’s paintings have been sold all over the world and he has appeared on several television programs by the BBC. Volvo even asked him to paint their S60 sports car.


External link: Esref Armagan’s official site