Faculty of Philosophy
University Ss. Cyril and Methodius
Citation: Dimitrova-Radojichikj D. Concepts of colors in children with congenital blindness. J Spec Educ Rehab 2015; 16(1-2):7-16. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/JSER-2015-0001
In modern cognitive neuroscience and psychology, there is a spectrum of disparate views on the relationship of sensory experience and concepts. The concepts of congenitally blind individuals are supposed to be fundamentally different from the concepts of the sighted (1). In the last 25 years, many authors have dedicated themselves to trying to understand the mechanisms underlying the processes of evoking or generating images not directly observed and for which there are no retinal representations: “seeing with the mind’s eye” (2).
Among modern cognitive scientists, there is an agreement that vision and development of cognition are intertwined. Studies show that 80-90 percent of incidental learning is accomplished through sight. A child with blindness is deprived of the visual sensory information, because of that fact; his/her cognitive development can be expected be delayed. This delay could be expected, and more importantly, understood (3). But, nativist studies claim that the lack of vision will not significantly affect the process of language acquisition. Blind children, whose observational opportunities are limited, compared to the normal case, acquire word meanings (even the meanings of color words and verbs of perception) at about the same rate as sighted children (4).
In 1985 Landau and Gleitman published their influential work on the relationship between language and experience from the perspective of language development in a congenitally blind girl called Kelli. They observed her uses of the verbs look and see from a very young age. Kelly was able to acquire impressive knowledge about color terms, including the constraints governing their correct application to concrete nouns, without overextending them to abstract or event nouns. She also properly used other vision-related words, like the verbs look and see, though her meaning of look seemed to apply to haptic explorations. A part from some delay in the onset of speech, Kelli showed normal language development, with her lexicon and grammar being virtually undistinguishable from the ones of sighted children by the age of three. The common interpretation of these data is that congenitally blind people possess substantial knowledge about the visual world derived through haptic, auditory and linguistic input (4). Visualization without previous experience, as is the case for congenitally blind, would indicate the existence of visual imagery independent of visual perception (2).
People who are blind often use words that have a visual meaning (such as “The countryside is looking really green”) that they may have difficulty defining, and it is interesting to observe the usage and meaning that such words of a visual nature can have for them (5). But, in terms of perception, blind look (haptic contact) and sight differ from their hold, touch, etc. Individuals who are visually impaired (blind or with low vision) demonstrate verbalism when they use terms that refer to vision (such as names of colors or words related to the sense of sight). Verbalism is defined as lack of meaning of visually impaired children’s word, whereas, visually oriented verbalism exists when a child employs a word referring to color or brightness to define the name of a given object from a list (6).
Harley in 1963 made a distinction between visual verbalism (the use of words referring to vision) and global verbalism, in which the child identified words that were not based on his/her own perceptual experience (7). On the basis of a word definition task, he reported that visually oriented verbalism was relatively rare and did not evolve with age (8). Rosel and colleagues found that blind children did not produce a higher level of visually oriented verbalism than sighted children but, in contrast to Harley’s study, they noted that this behavior increased with age in their two groups of children (5). The blind children tended to describe a larger number of functional attributes than the sighted children who, in turn, reported more perceptual attributes of familiar objects (9). Visually oriented verbalism was infrequent in blind children who mentioned colour or luminance properties less often than sighted children.
Many things in life cannot be transmitted well by words, concepts, or books (10). Colors that we see cannot be described to a congenital blind person, because they cannot be felt by one’s touch. Life must first be known experientially. There is no substitute for experience. All the other paraphernalia of communication and of knowledge –words, labels, concepts, symbols etc. are useful only because people already have experiential knowledge. For instance, while it is mostly true that the color red cannot be described to a congenitally blind child, yet this does not mean that words are useless, as some are prone to conclude. Words are fine for communicating and sharing experience with those who have already experienced (10).
Fifteen Macedonian students with congenital blindness, aged between 6 and 14 years (M=9.73; SD=1.98), participated in the study. None of these students had associated disorders, in particular language or cognitive disorders. Ten of the students were males (67%) and 5 were females (33%).
This study was a qualitative study with a phenomenological approach to investigate how the lack of direct experience with colour, as a result of congenital blindness, affects the child’s’ concept of colours. Data were collected through interviews. The researcher asked five questions in a random order: one about the use of colours: “People use colors for…..?”, one about knowing colours: “Please, list several colours”, one about his/her preferred colours: “What colour is your favorite and Why?”, than to name things in a particular colour (green, blue, red and yellow): “Tell me some things with “green” colour….?” and the last one to explain what is a rainbow: “What is a rainbow?, Specify the colors of the rainbow”. If the student provided a reply such as “I don’t know”, the researcher moved on to the next question.
Ten (67%) of the 15 students, gave these answers on the first question: “Colour is when we colour something”, “Colour is when we draw”, “Colour makes things beautifully”, “I paint with colour”; and other five participants couldn’t answer this question.
On the second question: “Please, tell me some colors”, the students mentioned 11 different colours: 14 (93%) green colour; 13 (87%) blue; 12 (80%) red and yellow; 11 (73%) white; 10 (67%) black; 9 (60%) grey; 7 (47%) brown; 6 (40%) orange and purple; and one student pink colour.
Almost all students have favourite colour, except one. Blue is the favourite colour of three children, two children mentioned green, the same numbers’ chose red, white and black colour, and one child’s favourite colour is pink.
Five of them can explain why that particular colour is his/her favourite colour: “I coloured egg with white colour”, “I coloured egg on Happy Ester with green”, “For me red means heart and love”, “My cassette is black”, and “My pullover is red”.
Table 1. Associate colours with specific objects
The next task was straightforward: the researcher said the name of the colour (e.g., “green”) and the child was respond by saying things which are coloured with that colour (e.g., “grass”). In table 1 students’ answer about their associating colours with specific objects are presented.
Table 2. Rainbow
Seven students out of fifteen couldn’t give the description of a rainbow, and only one student named the colours of a rainbow correctly.
Children first understand that color words refer to colour without knowing how colour words map to specific colour exemplars (11). Alternatively, at this early stage, children might only know that words such as "red" or "blue" are appropriate answers to "What color is this?" without knowing why. This could mean that children first understand that color words refer to color without knowing how color words map to specific color categories. Namely, children answer questions about colour with colour words because of mere linguistic associations and not conceptual knowledge—is supported by the fact that children who are blind from birth and thus have no direct experience of colours also answer these questions in the very same way (4). In sum, the developmental progress in learning colour words seems to move from learning about words to learning about the properties to which those words refer. Indeed, Soja in 1994 suggested that in early colour-word learning, children do not realize that colours are nameable properties (12).
The congenitally blind can understand the meaning of colour words every bit as well as sighted people can (13). We attach a different meaning to the names of colours from that commonly applied to them. Red, blue, violet, green, yellow, etc., have each, to the mind of a blind person, an idea which may be found to differ materially from the true one, or from that which they have, who are permitted to behold them in those infinite combinations, which are exhibited everywhere in the material world (14). The results from this study indicate that the child with congenital blindness use visual terms, in this case of colours.
The blind child’s understanding of colour terms offers a similar insight: by about 3 years of age she/he, like sighted peers, knows that color is the supernym of red and green but not of happy or round, though of course she/he had only hearsay knowledge of the actual colours of common things. For instance, asked at the age of 5 “Can a dog be blue?” a blind child res-ponded “A dog is not even blue“.“It’s gold or brown or something else”. But more interestingly, when asked “Can an idea be green?” she responded – as did sighted peers –“Really isn’t green; really just talked about – no colour, but we think about it in our mind” Blind learners’ experience with blue dogs and green ideas is exactly the same, namely none. But the response to whether either of these two “could be” some colour is different in a principle way (15).
The blind person knows that a tomato is called red, and lemons yellow. He applied these terms for no other reason than that he had been accustomed to hear others do so. In this research, most of the students made correct association of colours with specific objects (e.g. river is blue, blood is red etc). In agreement with Anderson’s observations, we expected blind children to introduce more personal references into their verbal definitions than sighted children (9). Also, students’ choice of their favorite colours depends on their favorite subject (e.g. My pullover is red).
Blind children learn to use words that cannot have any sensory basis or concrete referent for them, for example when speaking about the rainbow. Blind persons may never see a rainbow, but they still have the capability of creating a picture in their mind of what a rainbow might look like. In this research, only one child can correctly name the colours of a rainbow.
The blind child's understanding of colour is that it refers to a (non perceptible) quality of concrete objects and not to mental objects. These findings display the remarkable resilience of semantic acquisition over variations of input: Lacking the ordinarily relevant observations that (one might guess) support solution of the mapping problem for visual terms, the blind are not helpless to do the same.
Despite drastically different sensory experiences between people with and without blindness, behavioural and neuroscientific research suggests that blind children acquire typical concepts of objects, actions, and mental states. Blind people think and talk about these categories in ways that are similar to sighted people. Neuroimaging reveals that blind people make such judgments relying on the same neural mechanisms as sighted people. One way to interpret these findings is that neurocognitive development is largely hardwired, and so differences in experience have little consequence. Contrary to this interpretation, neuroimaging studies also show that blindness profoundly reorganizes the visual system. Most strikingly, developmental blindness enables “visual” circuits to participate in high-level cognitive functions, including language processing. Thus, blindness qualitatively changes sensory representations, but leaves conceptual representations largely unchanged. The effect of sensory experience on concepts is modest, despite the brain's potential for neuroplasticity (16).
People who are born blind cannot have knowledge that is normally gained exclusively through visual experience-knowledge of colors (17). A congenitally blind person cannot have a brain state corresponding with the colours as perceived by people with normal colour vision. An idea of anything is dependent on the sense impression of it, and this is different from the explanation of it (18). As the Scottish philosopher Hume pointed out, “We cannot form just an idea of the taste of pine-apple, without having actually tasted it” (19). We cannot add to get her olfactory sensation with the sensation of color. It is because of this intrinsic inability to mix different sensations that some cross-categorical identifications and statements that also cross sensory modalities like “the color blue smells like a rose” are meaningless (18).
Various studies suggest that the use of visual words (for instance colors) in children with visual impairments should not be prohibited, in opposite they should be used daily, but also beware on the semantic content of those words that can be enriched with the available perceptual experiences (20).
Educators of students with serious visual impairment must pay special attention when they explain colours of the environment. In this context, they must use the senses that the person still has. Many blind people are not blind from birth, and may simply need a reminder. For example, green is the color of the grass, the leaves of trees, and seaweed; the person can smell and touch these things. Then, the use of symbolism of colour if the blind person is interested (e.g. red is very passionate and can mean anger or desire, and so on) and a description of what the color might mean to that person (e.g. like soft, light, or cheerful for yellow) can help.
Conflict of interests
Author declare that have no conflict of interests.