I’ve just found an amazing 2002 article [pdf] from the American Mathematical Society about blind mathematicians.
I was surprised to learn that the majority work in geometry, supposedly the most ‘visual’ discipline, and fascinated to learn that they generally believe the experience of sight puts people at a disadvantage because it locks us into a perception-led view of space.
This can be a problem in geometry because it regularly works in problems that involve more than three dimensions or requires an understanding of objects from all ‘angles’ simultaneously.
Alexei Sossinski points out that it is not so suprising that many blind mathematicians work in geometry. The spatial ability of a sighted person is based on the brain analyzing a two-dimensional image, projected onto the retina, of the three-dimensional world, while the spatial ability of a blind person is based on the brain analyzing information obtained through the senses of touch and hearing. In both cases, the brain creates flexible methods of spatial representation based on information from the senses. Sossinski points out that studies of blind people who have regained their sight show that the ability to perceive certain fundamental topological structures, like how many holes something has, are probably inborn…
Sossinski also noted that sighted people sometimes have misconceptions about three-dimensional space because of the inadequate and misleading twodimensional projection of space onto the retina. “The blind person (via his other senses) has an undeformed, directly 3-dimensional intuition of space,” he said.
There is not any maths in the article but it is written for mathematicians so it contains lots of mysterious sentences like “Morin first exhibited a homotopy that carries out an eversion of the sphere in 1967″.
However, the article is also a fantastic history of blind mathematicians and has lots of quotes from current leaders in the field who explain who their supposed disability lets them better understand the maths of three and more dimensions.
Even for those without a maths background it’s an amazing insight into some remarkable people.