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This Week in History
June 22-28, 2014

Helen Keller
June 27, 1880 to June 1, 1968

This week we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Helen Keller, the towering intellectual mind, who, without the use of the normal human senses of sight, hearing and speech, fulfilled the meaning of her life, in the sense that we think of one's life as one might think of a classical work of poetry or music: "Our efficient individual existence is a metaphor in the form of the Good."

Helen Keller was stricken at 19 months old by a horrible intestinal illness and fever, which left her, from one day to the next, blind, deaf, and dumb. The little girl turned into a beastly, unmanageable child, until the family finally found help from the Perkins Institute for the Blind, in the person of the absolutely extraordinary teacher, Anne Sullivan. Anne was partially blind herself, and had come from a terrible family background; but she understood the power of the human mind, and she educated Helen, and showed the rest of the world, that the mind, not sense perception is primary.

This article Helen Keller: Mind Over Instrumentation, by Megan Rouillard, first appeared in February 2011: 


In his recent report, "What Makes Sense,"[1] 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:

I have emphasized, on this account, that if we treat experiences of sense-perception as being shadows cast by some unseen reality, as a now rich harvest of scientific instruments suggests, our attention is turned to the evidence of cases such as that of the celebrated case of Helen Keller, which warn us that a realm of five attributed human senses, is not the essential means on which the human mind should rely to steer efficient interventions into whatever the real world might be, that apart from a presumed direct and unique reality linking the world around us into the fruits of sense-perception as such. For example, could a person blind from birth, gain knowledge of the real world, which can be ultimately, as reliable, in effect, as an idea of the real world around us had by one with ordinary use of the five preferred senses?

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 Senses

Helen's account of her senses begins with the "seeing hand" of the "blind seeing," the sense of touch, which she says is unique:

"My fingers cannot, of course, get the impression of a large whole at a glance; but I feel the parts and my mind puts them together. I move around my house, touching object after object in order, before I can form an idea of the entire house.... It is not a complete conception, but a collection of object-impressions which, as they come to me, are disconnected and isolated. But my mind is full of associations, sensations, theories, and with them it constructs the house. The process reminds me of the building of Solomon's temple, where was neither saw, nor hammer, nor any tool heard while the stones were being laid one upon the other.

"Touch cannot bridge distance,—it is fit only for the contact of surfaces,—but thought leaps the chasm. For this reason I am able to use words descriptive of objects distant from my senses. I have felt the rondure of the infant's tender form. I can apply this perception to the landscape and to the far-off hills."[2]

Helen Keller referred to the sense of small as “the fallen angel.” She is shown here, ca. 1920, holding a fragrant magnolia flower.

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.

"Touch sensations are permanent and definite. Odors deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees, and location. There is something else in odor which gives me a sense of distance. I should call it horizon—the line where odor and fancy meet at the farthest limit of scent. Smell gives me more idea than touch or taste of the manner in which sight and hearing probably discharge their functions. Touch seems to reside in the object touched, because there is a contact of surfaces. In smell there is no notion of relievo, and odor seems to reside not in the object smelt, but in the organ. Since I smell a tree at a distance, it is comprehensible to me that a person sees it without touching it."

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[3], 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 measure the sensitiveness of Helen Keller's olfactory nerves, Dr. Tilney prepared oils, such as wintergreen and asafetida, in various dilutions (also alcohol, peppermint, formaldehyde, eucalyptus), and asked her to tell him when she could notice any difference between various odors. The weakest dilution of alcohol that she could smell was one part in 16. She detected eucalyptus as weak as one part in 64, wintergreen one part in 128, peppermint one part in 1024, and asafetida one part in 2048. And this is about the sensitiveness of the average person's smelling equipment."[4]

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

"a sense which would explain the mysterious homing of the pigeon and the straight, sure flight of the birds to their summer and winter homes. Experiments now underway at Columbia University indicate that this sense may prove to be a magnetic sense located in the retina of the eye.... Bridgman had a retina which may have functioned magnetically, even in blindness, to aid her a little in sensing direction. Whereas, Miss Keller, lacking this aid almost from birth, illustrates the negative side of the case."

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.[5]

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.[6] 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 1928—for 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.[7] She says of it:

"I understand how scarlet can differ from crimson because I know that the smell of an orange is not the smell of a grapefruit. I can also conceive that colors have shades, and guess what shades are. In smell and taste, there are varieties not broad enough to be fundamental, so I call them shades."

"Through an inner law of completeness my thoughts are not permitted to remain colorless."

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:

"Most reviewers found the book well written, but some critics, including that of The Nation, scoffed. 'All of her knowledge is hearsay knowledge,' The Nation said, 'her very sensations are for the most part vicarious and she writes of things beyond her power of perception and with the assurance of one who had verified every word.' "[8]

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 question—was 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:

"Philosophy constantly points out the untrustworthiness of the five senses and the important work of reason which corrects the errors of sight and reveals its illusions."

Let us explore for a bit this philosophical debate.

To read the complete article, click here



[1] Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., "Science's Next New Undertaking: What Makes Sense?" or EIR, Dec. 17, 2010.

[2] Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1907), in New York Review of Books, 2003.

[3] Frederick A. Tilney, "Comparative Sensory Analysis of Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman," Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 1928.

[4] Emily C. Davis, "Helen Keller Shows Future of Brain," The Science Newsletter, Vol. 14, No. 387 (Sept. 8, 1928) pp. 141-42, 147-48.

[5] See Benjamin Deniston's report on "Magnetoreception."

[6] See variously, the reports by Aaron Halevy, and Sky Shields.

[7] See Oyang Teng's report "Synesthesia," this issue.

[8] See New York Times.