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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Helen Keller: A Medical Marvel or Evidence of the I-Function?

Ellinor Wagner

Everyone cried a little inside when Helen Keller, history's notorious deaf-blind-mute uttered that magic word 'wa' at the end of the scientifically baffling classic true story. Her ability to overcome the limitations caused by her sensory disabilities not only brought hope for many like cases, but also raised radical scientific questions as to the depth of the brain's ability.

For those who are not familiar with the story of Helen Keller or the play 'The Miracle Worker', it recalls the life of a girl born in 1880 who falls tragically ill at the young age of two years old, consequently losing her ability to hear, speak, and see. Helen's frustration grew along side with her age; the older she got the more it became apparent to her parents that she was living in more of an invisible box, than the real world. Her imparities trapped her in life that seemed unlivable. Unable to subject themselves to the torment which enveloped them; watching, hearing and feeling the angst which Helen projected by throwing plates and screaming was enough for them to regret being blessed with their own senses. The Kellers, in hopes of a solution, hired Anne Sullivan, an educated blind woman, experienced in the field of educating sensory disabilities arrived at the Alabama home of the Kellers in 1887. There she worked with Helen for only a little over a month attempting to teach her to spell and understand the meaning of words v. the feeling of objects before she guided Helen to the water pump and a miracle unfolded. Helen understood the juxtaposition of the touch of water and the actual word 'water' Anne spelled out on her hand . Helen suddenly began to formulate the word 'wa' and repeated it, symbolizing her comprehension. This incident was, without a doubt, the greatest revolution in educating those with similar problems and was labeled a medical miracle for its just phenomenon.

I cannot help but think of the incredible capacity had, not only by Helen Keller, but by the human mind. What enables the human brain to function with minimalized inputs? How is the human sensory system able to remain dynamic and adaptive?

The sensory function in the nervous system is a complicated one, which still stimulates unanswered questions. While most often a sensory disabled person will only experience a sensory malfunction in one area, Helen Keller experienced it in two: the loss of sight and the loss of hearing initially rendering her unable to speak at all. The loss of sight occurs when the retina, a layer of neurons formed at the rear of the eye and the only part of the brain can be seen from outside the skull no longer is able to perform properly. The natural ability to hear is orchestrated by receptor neurons located in the ear which are called 'hair cells' that transmit sound through vibrations When these two senses no longer remain intact, the possibility of learning to communicate appears to be doubtful.

Helen Keller's transformation from a victim of herself to a college graduate, publishing several books and traveling the world to help others with disabilities similar to her own, brings about many questions as to how a human being can transcend such incompetence. As previously noted Helen fell ill at the age of two, long before a child learns to read, and often before one learns to speak, especially in the early 19th century. Had she been blind, deaf and mute from her birth would she have been able to combat such ailments? Or was her previous natural sensory experience irrelevant on the grounds that she would have been too young to acknowledge its functions?

In order to properly answer these questions, a variety of facts and analyses must be apprehended. Primarily, we must consider the extent of the miracle at hand. Before the age of two, not only did Helen Keller not know how to read or write, but she also did not know what reading and writing was in the simplest form. The fact that she could negotiate, in her inexperienced mind the, the relationship between fingers basically drawing lines on her hand, pronunciation, and the actual object (water) itself seems implausible. Whether or not some sort of innate notion of language instilled in her brain since birth depends primarily on the amount of awareness in relation to the English language or the senses she acquired before she became impaired. Furthermore, had she acquired such a concept, it would not be enough to surpass the boundaries of her inability to communicate and understand.

Scientists Bohm and Peat have theorized on Helen Keller's aided ability to communicate. They postulated that her natural instinct and previous knowledge of the senses led her to combine the notion of 'A' water in its natural form (in a variety of different ways including from the rain, tap, and pail) and 'B' the letters Anne would write on her hand when she experienced A. Essentially, she associated one form of learning with another. However, if this theory holds true, where in it lies the final output? Helen's pronunciation of the word 'wa' meaning water has no connection to either the word written on her hand nor the feeling of the water in all forms.

This brings me to a conclusion that the I function must have played a key role in facilitating the process of compound understanding. Whether or not the I function exists in the literal sense, its presence began to make its way into scientific rationality long before Christopher Reeves.


1)jstor home page, Scientific Monthly Vol.15 No.3

2)originresearch home page

3)The Life of Helen Keller

4)Scientific America

5)Sensory Perceptions Homepage

6)More of the Life of Helen Keller

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