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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/The Mutual Aid Society of the Senses


NUMEROUS images have been felicitously employed to illustrate the significance of the human brain. Drummond, in his book on The Ascent of Man, likens it to a great table-land, traversed by many broad highways, studded with mighty cities, broken up into an endless maze of cross-roads and paths, with some mere faint trails. The cities are the originating centers of gray matter; the highways the constantly traversed paths of ordinary thought; the cross-roads and bypaths its correlations; and the trails, the solitary, unfrequented channels of new and original ideas.

A better simile, perhaps, would be to typify the human brain by some rich mine, with numberless operating centers, connected by subterranean, well-worn passages and alleyways. The number and complexity of these is constantly increasing, as new lodes of ore are opened up, and still newer short cuts are daily blasted out for the economical conveniences of transportation and discovery.

"Suppose I want to buy a dynamo, as power for an electric light, or for the movement of machinery," said Dr. Walter E. Fernald (I am clothing his idea with my words), the Superintendent of the Massachusetts State Asylum for Feeble-minded children, at Waverly, Mass. "Here is one which is cheap, but limited in its possibilities. It can only feed so many lights, or will only give me so much horse power. Here is one larger, perhaps, but not noticeably so, which is warranted to support ten times the circuit, and to develop ten times the gauge of physical motive energy. I examine them closely, and I find the difference of the two to consist in the complexity of their coils of wire. The lesser power dynamo, with fewer volts, has coarser coils and fewer of them; whereas the more powerful developer of energy consists

PSM V46 D659 Side view of the outline of the human brain.jpg
Outline of Human Brain, Side View (After Ecker.)
1. Area of sight and its memories.
2. Area of hearing and its memories.
3. Area of motion and its memories, middle one third, arm.
upper one third, leg.
lower one third, face.
4. Area of touch and its memories,
5. Area of motor speech-memories
The areas of motion and general sensation coincide to some extent.

of endless and delicate windings and layers of wire." The difference between the normal and idiotic brain is entirely one of complexity.

The central nervous system consists practically of ingoing fibers from the various organs of sense, and of nerve cells for receiving and retaining impressions conveyed by these fibers. By some as yet unexplained power of co-ordination these cells combine these impressions and evolve new combinations of them, which are rendered manifest externally by impulses sent through a set of outgoing fibers to the various organs of motion.

A diagram is here reproduced showing the localized areas of sight, hearing, touch, etc., in the human brain, and their relation to the motor centers. It should be stated, in passing, that these centers are in duplicate, or pairs—one of each on each side of the brain.

The purpose of this article is to show by numerous facts that, when one of the senses is lost by accident, or when it is congenitally absent, the other senses, in persons otherwise normally constituted, become preternaturally keen, and this in a way to compensate in some degree for the loss of power in the disabled or absent sense. It is this that I have ventured to call the "Mutual Aid Society of the Senses."

The historian William H. Prescott, of Boston, who was himself blind, used to say that "the blind man saw little outside of the circle drawn by his extended arms, but that within that circle he saw more than those whose eyes were sound."

In considering my subject I will first narrate a very curious illustration of the strangely wayward, atavistic recurrence of blindness, deafness, and idiocy in collateral branches of an originally tainted stock.

I am indebted to Dr. A. Graham Bell for a very interesting story about a little hamlet in a certain isolated portion of New England. He happened accidentally at one time to come across a gentleman resident in that section who had an immense mass of genealogical statistics (made out on little slips of paper which he kept stuffed in different small bags) covering the family trees not only of his own neighbors, but also of descendants of the old stock now scattered all over New England.

From this unique material, which Dr. Bell has helped to put in usable shape, he became acquainted with the fact that this hamlet was a very peculiar little town, and had been so for twelve generations—ever since its original settlement. Its peculiarity consisted in the fact that one out of every twenty-five of its inhabitants was deaf. Two of the family who were its original settlers had been deaf; and this original leaven of affliction, like the veritable yeast plant itself, had gone on budding and sprouting and ramifying, until at the present day the whole town has a flavor of affliction; and, strange as it may seem, it is not only deafness (and dumbness) from which its quaint inhabitants suffer: some of them are blind, and some are idiotic. Dr. Bell has so many data in his possession that he has not had time as yet to thoroughly digest them all, but they strike him somewhat in this wise. All the way down and through one branch of an originally tainted stock deafness occurs, and disappears and recurs, generation after generation; and in another collateral branch blindness pursues the same wayward and yet persistent course; and strangest of all, idiocy itself creeps out here and there. Blindness and deafness are not the children of idiocy, but blindness goes on intensifying its peculiar brain cell and fiber lesion until the whole central shrine of the mind is vitiated and a.n idiot is born; and deafness grows and grows into a similar vice of the whole nervous system.

All this means that blindness and deafness are ill weeds which thrive apace if left uneradicated by proper specific education, and that, like the fly in the potter's ointment, they in time impeach the entire mental integrity.

The percentage in this town is, therefore, greater than anywhere else as regards its ratio of afflicted persons. They are like Darwin's cats with white fur and blue eyes, who are always deaf.

Miss Camilla E. Teisen, who was formerly employed in Johan Keller's Institution for Feeble-minded Children in Copenhagen, Denmark, and who is now settled down as chief instructress in the Pennsylvania Institute for Feeble-minded Children at Elwyn, Pa., has very kindly answered a number of pertinent questions which I asked her regarding the relative physical condition of the senses in idiots.

Miss Teisen regards the sight and hearing of feeble-minded children as the senses most frequently defective. She thinks sight the most important sense to develop, and that most easily developed. She feels assured of development in other directions as soon as the idea of color dawns upon the child's mind. According to her experience, the development of one sense is accompanied by improvement of the other senses. And yet exceptional cases have presented themselves to her notice where the development of one sense has seemed to leave the other stationary. Miss Teisen has: found it impossible to reach the moral sense without a fair development of the physical senses. Improvement of the physical senses has been usually shown to improve the habits and manners. A child that distinguishes sound and appreciates music will not be so likely to howl and scream, and a child that feels the influence of color is far less inclined to tear its clothes.

Miss Teisen makes one statement of unusual interest. She says that many of the children of lowest grade have perfect sight, which their minds can not use. This very striking announcement opens the way to the question as to whether the structure of the image-field of sight, together with both that of afferent and efferent nervous fibers (the carriers to and from the brain) may not in many cases be approximately perfect, and the great and perhaps only desideratum exist in the original centers of apprehension and action—the gray tissue cells of the brain itself.

As a commentary upon Miss Teisen's views, I may add the very interesting statement of Dr. Fernald, that the reason why sound and color give so much pleasure to the feeble-minded is that the simplicity of their brain and nerve fiber requires a greater blow of sense, so to speak, to affect it pleasurably. The idiotic child has the peculiarity (shared with it by Alexander III and the composer Bach) that he is most affected by loud music. In the same way fullness and force of color give the greatest pleasure to his eyes, such as the gorgeous crimson rose, or the serried stalks of full-petaled sunflowers, or huge beds of brilliant feathery chrysanthemums.

Instructors of the blind have always regarded the sense of touch as increased by the loss of sight. The fuller opportunities for close aural attention and thought—concentration, due also to their blindness—have been noted. There is no question but that the blind derive unusual enjoyment from music, and that their chief pleasure is found in listening to it.

There is an absolutely infinite field open for the improvement of the blind in clay modeling, which is already a main feature of their education. But no school has as yet pushed pupils of great promise in this respect with the intent of developing them into Karl Bitters in this wide field.

Given damp clay and a specific object to imitate, blind pupils are enabled by constant digital comparison (and their subtle sense of touch is no mean guide) to turn out in clay a very fair reproduction of their stuffed models. Afterward they model from memory, and without opportunities of comparison.

Henry Tschudi, a boy of seventeen, blind from birth, and educated in the American College of Music, passed his examination in June, 1891, in harmony, counterpoint, the history of music, musical form, terminology, acoustics, and the theory and practice of the organ. It was necessary for candidates to play at command compositions of Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, and other composers, in polyphonic sonata and free forms; also to transpose, to harmonize a figured bass, improvise upon a given theme, and determine pitch tones by ear. The demonstrative examination at the organ was conducted by three experts, and Mr. Tschudi received 92·80 per cent, being the first blind person to pass the examination.

Another pupil, of whom the New York Institution for the Blind is justly proud, is Mr. Lewis B. Carll, also born blind, who was prepared for Columbia College within its walls. He was graduated from Columbia College in 1870, being a classmate of the now president/ Mr. Seth Low, and took second place in a class of thirty. He delivered the class oration. Mr. Carll now lectures at Columbia College twice a week on the Calculus of Variations, and supports himself by giving lessons in mathematics. He lives in New Jersey, and comes to New York every day alone, sometimes going as far as Harlem.

The list which is kept of the occupations followed by pupils after graduation from the New York Institution for the Blind is curious reading. One of the tuners in Steinway's warerooms is

PSM V46 D663 David D Woods.jpg
Prof. David D. Woods.

a graduate, and another graduate was for years organist in Dr. Crosby's church. An insurance broker, a prosperous news vender with three stands, a horse dealer, a tax collector, a real estate agent, a florist, are duly registered. But the most astonishing of all entries are those of a lumberman, a sailor and a cook, and finally a switch-tender.

The Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind, in Philadelphia, points with pride to two very distinguished graduates in the field of music Mr. David D. Woods (a very excellent likeness of whom is herewith reproduced), the famous blind organist of St. Stephen's Church in Philadelphia, and Mr. Adam Geibel, composer and organist of the Baptist Temple at Broad and Berks Streets, Philadelphia, and of the John B. Stetson Chapel, at Fourth and Columbia Avenues in the same city.

Prescott the historian and Huber the naturalist were both blind.

The following remarkable instances of deaf persons, many of them congenitally so, who are practicing professions, and depending entirely upon lip-reading for their understanding of conversation, was prepared by a gentleman connected with an institution for the deaf, whose name I am not at liberty to give.

A Columbus paper has published some accounts of the stone-deaf Ohio lawyer, in full practice, who depends absolutely upon lip-reading, and who has tried cases in Columbus courts. For twelve years now, Mr. N. B. Lutes, of Tiffin, Ohio, has depended entirely upon lip-reading to do all that any lawyer does for his clients in court and in every phase of the practice of the law.

The latest issue of the Missouri Deaf-Mute Record gives an account of a lady who reads the lips of ministers and public speakers. Mr. Alexander Hunter, of the United States Land Office, in Washington, D. C, is "deaf as an adder." Though far from perfect in lip-reading, he has read one hundred and fifty words "given out" from the dictionary without making a mistake. He has read the lips of Beecher and Booth almost faultlessly, and has greatly enjoyed pulpit and platform orators and some of the great actors, the chief drawback in reading their lips being the shifting of their positions on the stage, so that their lips were at times invisible.

Mitchell, the chemist, an examiner in the United States Patent Office, graduated from the Clarke Institute, Northampton, Mass., and, though a poor lip-reader, graduated from the Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic School as an analytical chemist.

For many years a totally deaf man has occupied a place in the United States Civil Service, receiving his first appointment on the strength of admirable papers in the civil-service examination. Notwithstanding his infirmity, thanks to his lip-reading, he took the regular course at a great university, recited with his classmates, attended lectures, and secured his degree. I doubt if president or professors knew that he was a deaf man. Certainly some of his classmates did not know it. For business reasons his deafness is kept secret, and a keen newspaper man went through the office in which he was employed a few years ago in search of a deaf clerk, and failed to find such a man or any one who knew of the existence of such a case in that department.

This, of course, is an extraordinary case, but probably none more so than that of Miss Salter (see Annals of Volta Institute, Volume XXIII, pages 181-185), so far as proficiency in lip-reading is concerned, or, for that matter, for many other reasons. Then there is the case of the English barrister Lowe, the most learned congenital deaf-mute on record. He was a pupil of the first Watson (who taught by the oral method without recourse to signs, but used the two-handed alphabet). The North British Review said of Lowe, "A stranger might exchange several sentences with him before discovering that he is deaf." Dr.

PSM V46 D665 Helen Keller and her teacher.jpg
Helen Keller and her Teacher.

H. P. Peet said of him (after an interview), "He certainly uses the English language with an exceptional degree of correctness." The Annals gives a glowing account of Lowe's attainments, in Volume XXII, pages 36-40, abridged from an article in Smith's Magazine, but is silent as to his attainments in speech and lip-reading. Dr. H. P. Peet, in his Tour, says his voice was guttural, and single words were intelligible, though his connected speech was hard to understand. Lowe, in addition to being a great and successful barrister at law (studying under the learned chief justice), was a master of many languages—French (modern and old), Latin, Greek (ancient and modern), German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, with some knowledge of Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Bohemian, Finnish, and had not neglected Hindostani and Sanskrit, He commenced Hebrew in his thirty-fifth year, and afterward constantly read the Old Testament in that language. He was also familiar with various branches of science, architecture, etc. The McLellan brothers, both deaf, are successful Canadian lawyers.

The results of competent oral instruction are simply marvelous, students being shown at the Penn Institute for the Deaf, at Mount Airy, Philadelphia, who can understand and repeat, in a fairly modulated voice, long sentences uttered away from them—i. e., when they are only able to perceive the movements of that corner of the speakers mouth which is toward them—who can also read fluently from the shadow of speaking lips thrown upon the wall. These visual organs of the deaf are made to do the work of two senses, and attain in time the most extraordinary power and even subtlety of vision. It has with propriety been suggested that such highly developed eyes would be of service in the most delicate astronomical and physical experiments, where instruments of precision are commonly employed. A likeness of Helen Keller and one of her teachers accompanies this article. This girl was congenitally deaf and blind, and has been taught to use articulate speech by the oral system of education now so successfully practiced.

By oral instruction I mean that system which teaches the deaf to communicate with the world at large by means of articulate speech, in contradistinction to the inferior and largely discarded manual-alphabet system, which entirely isolates them as a class from society in general, which does not understand their signs and can not spare time to use the writing pad.


The theory of probability and uniform experience, said Dr. William Harkness, at the American Association, alike show that the limit of accuracy attainable with any instrument is soon reached; and yet we all know the fascination which continually lures us on in our efforts to get better results out of the familiar telescopes and circles which have constituted the standard equipment of observatories for nearly a century. Possibly these instruments may be capable of indicating somewhat smaller quantities than we have hitherto succeeded in measuring with them, but their limit can not be far off, because they already show the disturbing effects of slight inequalities of temperature and other uncontrollable causes. So far as these effects are accidental they eliminate themselves from every long scries of observations, but there always remains a residuum of constant error, perhaps quite unsuspected, which gives us no end of trouble.