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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.4 > The Girl Who Smelled Blue

The Girl Who Smelled Blue

The Color ful Case of Willetta Huggins

ONE NIGHT MANY YEARS AGO I TOOK A LOVELY BLIND girl out to the movies on a date. (Yes, a girl—this was before I’d come out!) Let’s call her Charlotte. Now, seeing a movie is something that most of us take for granted. But for the visually impaired, going to the movie theatre is an altogether different phenomenological event. Back then, naïve and egocentric as I was, it didn’t even occur to me that my literally blind date might have trouble following the details of the film in the absence of onscreen visual cues. And to make matters worse, the film was Face/Off, the plot of which revolves around one character literally having the face of the other. As such, there are a number of scenes where being able to see what’s happening up there on the screen seems like it might come in handy. This fact suddenly dawned on me, and I felt the urge to explain. That, as it turns out, was a big, ableist faux pas. “That’s actually the other guy,” I whispered to Charlotte. “The brother thinks he’s about to talk to the Nick Cage guy when it’s really John Travolta’s character.” “Yeah, I know that.” (Add “you stupid sighted schmuck” and you’ll get the gist of her tone.)

In hindsight (sorry) I don’t know why I should have found Charlotte’s auditory deciphering of some meagre John Woo wizardry especially surprising. She was brilliant. In our psychology graduate stats class, it was Charlotte who—merely listening to the lecturer conjuring up complex hypothetical problems— was the first to raise her hand with the correct answers, not any of us actually seeing him writing down the very problems on the chalkboard and trying to work them out on paper. I still find it astonishing, and perplexing, how the symbols and formulas inherent to such challenging mathematical concepts are represented in the mind of a congenitally blind person. But whatever nonvisual faculties Charlotte employed to process this abstract information, she was using them at lightning speed.

The idea that the loss of one sensory modality leads to the enhanced capacity of other sensory modalities is an old one in psychology. William James described a deaf-blind woman named Laura Bridgeman1 who was said to have such an acute sense of touch that she could identify people by shaking their hands years after first meeting them this way. He also wrote of a blind woman employed in the laundry of a mental asylum who sorted the freshly washed linens of the residents based on their odors. Helen Keller claimed to recognize her friends by the singularity of their scents, too.

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UNDERSTANDING FLAT EARTHERS WHO SAYS THE EARTH IS FLAT, AND WHY? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Water Fluoridation: Public Health, Not Poison, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Are You in the 43 Percent?, by Carol Tavris DEBATE Does God Exist? A Rebuttal of Theologian Brian Huffling • God is Not a Moral Being: A Response to Gary Whittenberger on the Problem of Evil ARTICLES Understanding Flat Earthers • Shroud of Turin Update • The Girl Who Smelled Blue: The Colorful Case of Willetta Huggins • How to Navigate Contentious Conversations • How Much Longer Will Cancer Screening Myths Survive? • Nationalistic Pseudohistory in the Balkans • “Prove that I am Wrong!” What QAnon, Descartes, and Brains in Vats Have in Common REVIEWS Reviews of Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness • The Human Swarm: How Tolerance of Strangers Creates Society • Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues • Forensic Science Reform: Protecting the Innocent • The Psychology and Sociology of Wrongful Convictions: Forensic Science Reform • Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law JUNIOR SKEPTIC Victorian England’s Jurassic Park, by Daniel Loxton