Several weeks back, I wrote about Crashing Through, a biographical work about Mike May. He’d lived as a blind man for 43 of his first 46 years on this planet, recovering his vision following a revolutionary stem cell procedure and then a corneal transplant. At the time I was only about halfway through the book, but couldn’t keep myself from writing about it.
Many reviewers have talked about how May’s story is inspiring, particularly as so few (perhaps fewer than a dozen) people have ever regained sight after so long.
Mike May is an inspiring person, with or without sight. In fact the thing that made such an impression on me was illustrated by the way he decided to pursue the surgery which gave him his sight. He made a list of pros and cons. There were many potential risks, some of which could have proved life threatening. He had a rich life, with a wonderful family. He didn’t feel he needed sight, because life was just fine without it. The only reason to pursue the surgery was because he’d not experienced sight in his memory.
I found the period after he regained sight to be interesting, because it reflected how it feels to see. His way of thinking, and his approach to life in general is a great model for all of us.
He has never shied away from challenge. And after regaining his sight he faced quite a bit of unexpected challenge. The book details several other cases of people who had lived without sight for years. In all of the cases discussed, the subject suffers periods of significant depression after regaining sight. That would appear to defy logic, but the probable reasons are intriguing.
May found seeing exhausting and confusing, largely due to the fact that the visual function in his brain was effectively dead. Apparently seeing is as much a cognitive process as it is a physical one. Our brains recognize objects based on years of learning experience. When May lost his vision at age three, many of those neural pathways were effectively repurposed to other complex tasks. When he regained sight as an adult, he could not reclaim those back for object recognition.
After undergoing study with a professor and researcher, and after thinking a lot about his situation, May found a way to bootstrap some of the cognitive process necessary for him to recognize objects. In effect, he readapted the mindset of a blind man, relying on his other senses to teach him about objects. Then he’d try to commit them to memory. It turns out that by relying on other senses (hearing and touch primarily) which he had developed over years of practical use, he was able to stir some object recognition without having the benefit of full cognition.
It’s imperfect, and doesn’t replace the lost neural pathways. But it definitely help Mike May to proactively improve his sense of sight. Working on recognizing what things look like is a more useful way to spend your time than feeling bad about things you don’t control. The subtext here is that people who are willing to challenge themselves perhaps can make their own "luck".
This is what inspires me about Mike May. He has never ceased trying to find a way to make things work, even against insurmountable odds.
That’s the kind of person I want to be.