Neuroscience at the Movies

Blindness

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
--- Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

There are many types, degrees and causes of blindness. Vision is a complex process involving not only reception of visual stimuli, but transference of visual information along nerve pathways to the brain. Trauma to any point along these pathways can result in visual impairment. Some causes of blindness are genetic, others may be the result of pre- or postnatal disease processes in the body. Contrary to general perception and what is often depicted in movies, being blind does not necessarily mean being in total darkness. In non-traumatic cases, blindness may be total from birth, but more often, it is progressive and begins later. In some cases, visual loss may start in the center of the visual field and expand outward or start in the peripheral fields and close inward. Other types of blindness may involve the inability to track objects moving across the visual field, the inability to scan and perceive more than one object, or the inability to distinguish shapes.

We must also consider that "seeing" is not just a physiological event, but it is often used in conversation, literature and films as a metaphor for "understanding." Therefore, in films featuring a character who is physically blind, look for signs of who else is not "seeing" or understanding the situation. Other metaphorical themes for blindness in film relate to light (e.g., "seeing the light" or light vs. dark [good vs. evil]), shadow or shadowy (e.g., what is real vs. unreal), appearance vs. disappearance and different forms of "-spection" (e.g., inspection, introspection, perspective).

Regardless of how you may have considered blindness before, if you ever thought that life without vision was incomplete or lacking, the characters in these films will convince you otherwise. Full of wit, intelligence, strength and determination, they are proof that blindness in itself does not stand in the way of being a hero, heroine, mentor or valued team member.

Questions to consider while viewing these films:

  • Do you think the movie had a realistic portrayal of blindness? Why or why not?
  • How was the character's impairment a challenge? A benefit?
  • How did the character overcome the challenges? How did he or she use it to his or her advantage?
  • How did the character perceive his or her blindness? How did others perceive it?
  • How was the playing field "leveled" - in other words, in what situation would the blind character be at an advantage and other characters be "blind?"
  • If you became blind, what kinds of changes would you make in your life?
  • You may have heard the saying "The blind leading the blind." How does that relate to these films? In other words, what kind of "blindness" or limitations were shown by other characters in the film.
  • If you watch two or more of these films, compare and contrast how characters met their unique challenges. Also, did they perceive their blindness in similar or different ways?

MOVIE AGE/RATING TYPE COMMENTS
Quest for Camelot

1998

Elementary School

Rated: G

Animated

86 min.

Kayley and Garrett, a young girl and blind boy who aspires to be a knight, are the unlikely heroes who save the kingdom of Camelot. Excellent sensitivity experience for younger viewers not only in seeing how Garrett relates and adapts to the challenges of his world, but also to young girls who aspire to greatness. Voice talents include Jane Seymore, Pierce Brosnan, Sir John Gielgud, Bronson Pinchot. Singing talent includes Celine Dion, Andrea Corr (The Corrs), LeeAnn Rimes and Steve Perry.
Sneakers

1992

Middle School

Rated: PG-13

Drama

125 min.

The star-studded cast of Sneakers includes Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, and James Earl Jones. A multi-layered, very intelligent, well thought-out and fun film about a reformed group of hackers-turned-security-consultants who now test high-tech security systems by trying to "sneak" in. Now they've got to put their knowledge to work to lift a "black box" that in the wrong hands has the power to decrypt any code and break into any system (e.g., national security systems) with potentially disastrous results. The blind team member, Whistler, has a very strong supporting role. The interdependence and mutual support of all the team members is admirable. In the words of Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), "There's a war out there, old friend, a world war. And it's not about who's got the most bullets, it's about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think - it's all about the information." This includes how information is received through the senses and processed. You will want to watch this movie at least twice!
The Miracle Worker

1962

Elementary School

Not Rated

Drama

106 min.

On a more serious note, The Miracle Worker with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft is a powerful portrayal of the true story of fiery and dedicated Irish teacher Anne Sullivan and her reluctant pupil, seven year-old, blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller. Through a tremendous, but ultimately triumphant clash of wills, Anne's determination forces Helen to confront and order her world. Extremely compelling story, masterfully done. Students of all ages will be drawn in. Both actresses won well-deserved Oscars for their performances. There is a more recent remake of this film, but the first version is the gold standard.
Scent of a Woman

1992

High School

Rated: R

Drama

157 min.

Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell, who played Robin in Batman, star in this story of an irrascible, blind former military officer and the young college student who looks after him during Thanksgiving weekend to earn extra money for his trip home at Christmas. Although blind, Pacino as Lt. Col. Frank Slade is unquestionably in charge throughout this whole film. The soft spot under his toughness eventually shows through and Pacino's character becomes a mentor of sorts to Charlie (O'Donnell). Life is worth living to its fullest. Drink it up, and don't leave without a tango. Pacino recieved an Academy Award for his performance in this film.
Wait Until Dark

1967

Middle School

Rated: PG-13

Thriller

105 min.

Thrillers that portray a blind character often play on the character's perceived increased vulnerability. That's the mistake some crooks make when they try to retrieve heroin that has been hidden in an antique doll given to Susan Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) who is adapting to her loss of vision following an auto accident a year earlier. This thriller is several cuts above any other with a blind heroine (no pun intended) on several counts: 1) the level of acting (Audrey Hepburn, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Alan Aarkin), 2) non-dependence on sex or violence to carry the story, 3) resourcefulness of lead character and 4) non-patronizing or insensitive tone. You will never equate "blind" and "helpless" again. Also, we get an illuminating glimpse of the steps one goes through to re-order one's surroundings in the absence of visual clues. Memorable line: "Since when can Lisa type?" Hepburn was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.

Related links:

Movie Topics
Amnesia Autism Blindness Cognitive Impairment
Deafness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Feral Children
Neuroscience at the Movies

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