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By Mike Mowbray


 Sometimes referred to as ‘eyeless sight’ or ‘extra-optical vision’, ‘paroptic vision’ denotes an ostensive ability to perceive what typically are taken to be visual phenomena – such as colours, images or text appearing on an otherwise undifferentiated flat surface – without aid of the eye(s). The term ‘dermo-optical perception,’ another related term, specifically identifies the sensory locus in the skin, and typically refers to such a sensory capability manifest upon touching the surface of an object, image or text, especially with the fingertips.  The oldest and most commonly-cited types of examples of ‘paroptic vision’ are of this sort, though numerous accounts describe ‘seeing’ through the skin, or through some means unknown, without the necessity of physical contact with the object described. While many commentators are incredulous of the very possibility, such a claimed capability invokes the possibility of alternative channels to the sort of sensory impressions or information that the five-fold sensorium of orthodox modern science tends to classify as ‘visual.’

Martin Gardiner offers a distinctly skeptical overview of a series of 20th century cases in an article published in the journal Science in 1966, an effort prompted by a then-recent stirring of attention in the US press related to cases of “eyeless sight” reported in the Soviet Union. A number of women in the USSR (best publicized being the cases of Rosa Kuleshova and Ninel Kulagina) were brought to public attention in the early 1960s, held to possess extraordinary abilities that amount to claimed cases of ‘paroptic vision.’ Kuleshova, then 22, was first reported (in a regional newspaper, Uralsky Rabochy, whose reporters’ interest was quickly multiplied among Russian periodicals, including both the popular press and scholarly publications) to possess the ability to “read print simply by moving a fingertip over the lines” (Gardner 1966: 654). The Kuleshova case eventually made its way onto the pages of Time (25 January 1963) in the United States, the first of multiple appearances in print there.

Kuleshova “[n]ot only […] read print with her fingers, she also described pictures in magazines, on cigarette packages, and on postage stamps” (Gardner 1966: 655). She also proved capable of discerning print placed beneath glass or cellophane. Soviet scientists, who submitted her to a variety of tests, felt that her fingers were sensitive to ordinary light (having determined that her abilities continued in instances where infra-red heat was shielded, but not in darkness, and that she perceived three color modes in experiments as would a normal human eye); as biophysicist Mikhail Smirnov chose to put it, “The fingers have a retina. The fingers ‘see’ light” (cited in Gardner 1966: 655). Similar cases were reported – and investigated – in the US at the time, the most prominent being that of Patricia Stanley (studied by Richard P. Youtz of Barnard College), who did not read print though she did furnish experimenters with early positive results in identifying the colours of fabrics and test cards. These early results, alongside those reported out of the USSR, prompted an article in none other than the New York Times headlined “We have more than five senses” in March of 1964 – though subsequent experiments with Stanley yielded negative results.

Himself a dabbler in ‘magic’ (in the contemporary Western sense of parlour tricks and performance, of clever illusion played up to entertain and astound), Gardner claims to recognize a classic gambit as the likely explanation for most cases of “eyeless sight”: the so-called “peek down the nose.” Noting that “mentalists” had by the 1960s been treating audiences to “eyeless vision” acts for several decades at least, the procedures for which closely resembled the experiments described with Russian and American subjects, Gardner suggests that more mundane explanations could easily account for the positive results in the various cases he adduces. The mentalist Kuda Bux, for example, “a Mohammedan who comes from Kashmir,” sporting a full-face blindfold consisting of “many yards of cloth […] wound like a turban to cover his entire face from the top of his forehead to the tip of his chin” beneath which “both eyes are covered with large globs of dough,” is, Gardner points out (654), “able to read books, solve mathematical problems on a blackboard, and describe objects held in front of him.” Such performers, Gardner tells us (ibid), “do obtain, by way of trickery, a way of seeing.” While hinting at more complicated techniques, which he keeps close to his chest so as not “to endanger [his] standing in the magic fraternity too much,” the author insists that in most cases “it is impossible, without injury to [the] eyes, to prepare a blindfold that does not permit at tiny aperture, on each side of the nose, through which light can enter each eye” (ibid). The clever exploitation of such an (often miniscule) aperture – which can entail a few tell-tale signals, such as the tendency to “sniff” in jockeying for the requisite posture – is, he holds, the most straightforward possible explanation where it cannot be definitively discounted. In the experiments described, most subjects wear either a relatively conventional blindfold or a sleep-mask, sometimes with wadding about the eyes – surely, Gardner reasons, no match for the get-up of Kuda Bux.

Given the absence of ”adequate precautions” in most experiments that yielded positive results, he writes, and “[i]n view of the failures of subjects to demonstrate [dermo-optical perception] when careful precautions were taken to rule out peeks through minute apertures,” a thoroughgoing skepticism “appears to be strongly justified” (ibid: 657). As Gardner notes in the closing paragraphs of his article, Ninel Kulagina had been caught ‘peeking’ by Soviet researchers who decided to “alternate experiments in which the woman could possibly peek and eavesdrop with experiments where peeking would be impossible” (B. Lebedev, head of the Bekhterev Psychoneurological Institute, quoted by Gardner 1966: 657), later scientific articles describing better-controlled tests with Kuleshova “strongly indicated nose-peeking,” and tests with Patricia Stanley undertaken “with more knowledge of how blindfolds can be evaded” (in part garnered from an exchange of letters between Richard Youtz and Gardner himself) had failed to exceed chance expectations (657). Gardner is quick to remind Life magazine (and at least one reasonably prominent psychologist), in light of a 1964 story trumpeting the implications of the case of Rosa Kuleshova (who had, it was reported, ‘read’ reporter Albert Rosenfeld’s business card with her elbow) that the very same publication had run a remarkably similar account in 1937. The earlier story recounted the case of 13-year old Pat Marquis, “the boy with the X-ray eyes,” who was reported by a Glendale, CA physician to be capable of apparently sighted tasks with a blindfold firmly in place. At the time, Life reported that journalists and academics could turn up no evidence of deception, and a trip to the archives can turn up “photographs of Pat, ‘securely blindfolded,’ playing ping-pong, pool and performing simiar feats. Naturally he could read” (ibid: 656). Eventually subject to testing by J.B Rhine – an the a key figure in parapsychology and the man who coined the term ‘extra-sensory perception – Marquis was caught nose-peeking (655-6). Yet this selection of cases is perhaps only part of a larger story (albeit one that does urge caution in accepting claims about such extraordinary abilities).

Indeed, these cases are by no means the first to be noted. Samuel Johnson, for example, knew of (and dismissed as trickery) the reputed abilities of “gamesters and jugglers who could know cards by touch.” An entry in Boswell for the defense dating from 1772 (cited in Brewer 1966) testifies that


[T]o be sure, a difference in the surface makes the difference of colours. “But that difference,” observed Mr. Johnson, “is so fine that it is not sensible to the touch.” The General [Pasquale de Paoli] mentioned gamesters and jugglers who could know cards by touch. Mr. Johnson said that those cards must not have been so well polished as ours were.


Brugger and Weiss (2008), less overtly dismissive than Gardner (writing that “Methodologically, the bulk of this work was incredibly poor, but at least some investigations (e.g., Nash, 1971; Zavala, van Cott, Orr, & Small, 1967) ruled out that all dermooptical perception could simply be dismissed as “a peek down the nose”’ (Gardner, 1966)”), suggest that a case recently presented in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences from the writings of Robert Boyle as an example of synesthesia is, rather, “possibly the first account of dermo-optical perception” (255). Commenting on Larner’s (2006) discussion of a 17th century account by Boyle of “a man, blinded by smallpox around age two, who appeared to be able to perceive the color of objects by mere manual palpation” (Brugger and Weiss 2008: 253-4), they question Larner’s tentative characterization of such an ability as a possible example of “cross-modal” sensory processing activity or “a special form of synesthesia.” Rather, relying on a paradigm that they rest at the feet of American psychologist Walter Makous, whose empirical research in the 1960s


showed that the phenomenon relies on subjects’ sensitivity to thermal exchanges between the skin and colored objects, even in complete darkness. As objects of different color (lightness and hue) differ in their heat-reflecting properties, blind as well as normally sighted individuals can learn to differentiate between them (ibid: 254).


“Discrimination between, say, red and blue with the cutaneous thermal sense,” they suggest “does not usually induce the phenomenal awareness of seeing red or blue” (ibid). While Brugger and Weiss disagree with Larner’s inference concerning synesthesia, and (like Richard Youtz, discussed by Gardner) prefer to consider the particular ‘paroptic’ case of individuals capable of discerning colours without aid of the eye under a rubric that does not evoke ‘vision’ at all, they are unequivocally interested in seeing the questions raised by such cases – when not dismissed outright as probable deception – pursued within their own field.

Though such examples as those discussions by Boyle and Johnson already noted establish that such an ostensive ability had been remarked upon in Western Letters at least by the 17th century, Jules Romains, a French writer and one-time aspirant to scientific legitimacy presents a more focused and sustained effort to grapple with (and popularize) the concept of ‘paroptic vision.’ His 1920 book, La vision extra-rétinienne et le sens paroptique (preceded by a 1919 study penned under Romains’ legal name, Louis Farigoule), drawing on experiments conducted with a number of female subjects in France in the preceding years, “presented evidence of rudimentary vision, of perception of colors, and of the location of objects by certain areas of the skin” (Virtanen 1986: 283). Gardner (1966: 656), looking back, sees only “the same lack of controls, the same ignorance of the methods of mentalism, the same speculations about the opening of new scientific frontiers, the same unguarded predictions about how the blind may someday learn to ‘see,’ the same scorn for those who remain skeptical.” In an interesting twist, he notes that “Romains thought that the mucous lining of the nose is especially sensitive to colors, because in dim light, where colours were hard to see, his subjects had a marked tendency to ‘sniff spontaneously’.” Yet Romains clearly felt that his was the first study to establish with some scientific legitimacy the existence of ‘paroptic vision’; he was never to renounce his belief (see Virtanen 1986: 283-4).

According to Reino Virtanen (1986), Romains admitted freely in his later career to a kind of “transference” in his invention of Dr. Viaur, a character in his series of novels Les Hommes de bonne volonté who was marginalized and ignored in his own unorthodox research (in this fictitious example, with individuals capable of controlling by “sheer act of will” certain of their own vital functions, such as the heartbeat, contra the prevailing view that held fast to the necessity for life of the automatic stability of the milieu intérieur) before tacking to a more conventional path in the medical profession, for which Viaur was awarded some accolades. In a 1959 interview with Virtanen (1986: 283), Romains “left the impression that he might have preferred to win scientific celebrity instead of literary renown, just as Dr. Viaur would have preferred to gain glory for his revolutionary researches instead of a modest distinction for his work in ‘normal science.’”

Interestingly, Gardiner (1966: 656) suggests that “[i]t was Romains’ book that probably aroused magicians in the United States to devise acts of eyeless vision,” a claim substantiated at least in part by Chicago performer Harlan Tarbell, who “speaks of his own work in this field as a direct result of his interest in Romains’ work” in a section titled “X-Ray Vision and Blindfold Effects” in his multi-volume 1954 Tarbell Course in Magic (ibid: 657 n. 11).

More recently, Shiah and Tam (2005) discuss a number of studies, carried out both in the West and in Taiwan in recent years, of what they call the ‘’finger-reading’ effect.” This “effect,” in their summation “refers to successful touch identification of apparently flat targets on paper, where the participant is unableto see, or feel, any normal sensory cues to aid touch identification” (117). According to the authors (118-119), variants on such an ability have been frequently reported in China over the past thirty years:


On 11th March 1979, a boy aged 12 was reported by the Sichuan Daily in mainland China as seemingly possessing an “ear reading” capability, i.e. he was able to recognise characters written on a piece of paper screwed into a ball and put into his ear (Chien, 1981; Eisenberg, 1985; Gardner, 1996). Since then, hundreds of Chinese children have been reported as appearing to possess this ability. Sometimes a folded paper involving Chinese characters was placed into children’s hands or armpits. One of the more recurrent claims of possession of exceptional ability was for a finger-reading capability (Lee, 1998; Wang et al., 1989).


The president of Taiwan’s most prestigious university was apparently sufficiently intrigued by such ostensive abilities that he sought to study the matter – and to seek to train such abilities – in the mid-1990s, and to have kept at it for over a decade (ibid: 118). Shiah and Tam ultimately hold – echoing some of the methodological skepticism of others – that it is indeed possible that something heretofore unexplained may be going on with regard to the “finger-reading effect.” “If the finger-reading effect is true,” they write, “the assumptions would be as follows:”


1. Our fingers might be able to detect printing with a very low elevation, even a nearly zero elevation, probably through unknown functions in the fingers. This would be a new and astonishing discovery about sensory abilities.

2. The finger-reading effect might involve some new means of perception beyond those presently understood.

3. In fact, no one has produced any plausible or satisfactory explanation for the finger-reading effect or any new means of communication. The most difficult aspect is whether to attribute it to the first assumption or the second assumption. This effect might involve both exceptional tactile ability and some new means of communication


            Among some of the more unusual explanatory efforts is that put forward by Earlyne Chaney in her book The Eyes Have It: A Self-Help Manual for Better Vision (1987). Chaney (1987: 5) suggests (innocuously enough, at first) that “sight has two organs: the eyes and the skin.” According to Chaney (1987: 5-6) – who further posits that “this second-sight organ must have been originally designed for use in darkness (given that the eyes see only in light” – “The skin consists of visual microscopic ocelli distributed over the whole epidermis but especially in the fingertips. The ocelli possess a refracting body, and ocillary retina, an optical fiber.” Beyond such extraordinary claims about physiology (which do in fact echo Romain and others with a prior interests in this areas), Chaney sweepingly connects ‘paroptic vision’ with a range of ‘psychic’ phenomena:


The paroptic vision – that of seeing with the fingertips – could be a bridge between physical and psychic vision. The diffused peripheral skin vision could be extended as a sky vision, like a telescope focusing on one small space. It could finally project itself beyond space and become psychic clairvoyance.

Receptive and reflective, the paroptic function could explain the so-called ‘aura’ phenomenon. Its absorbtion of light may awaken in the brain some sensitive organ – a sixth sense organ – that could change the peripheral absorbtion of light into psychic clairvoyance.


Ultimately, repeating the promise of a tremendous number of contemporary works treating the notion of the ‘sixth sense’ in a form combining occultism and pseudoscience (not to mention concern with stress and bad posture) with a New Age/Self-help thrust, Chaney claims that “psychic clairvoyance” “could become a permanent faculty through fully developed and trained paroptic vision.”


Works cited:

Brewer, F.A. 1966. Samuel Johnson on dermo-optical perception. Science 152: 592.


Brugger, Peter and Peter H. Weiss. 2008. “Dermo-Optical Perception: The Non-Synesthetic “Palpability of Colors” A Comment on Larner (2006).” Journal of    the History of the Neurosciences 17:253–255.


Chaney, Earlyne. 1987. The Eyes Have It: A Self-Help Manual for Better Vision. Boston: Red Wheel/Weiser.


Cotzin, Milton. “The Perception of Obstacles by the Blind.” In Empirical Foundations of Psychology, edited by N.H. Pronko and J.W. Bowles. New York: Routledge.


Gardiner, Martin. 1966. “Dermo-optical Perception: A Peek Down the Nose.” Science  151: 654–657.


Larner A.J. 2006. “A possible account of synaesthesia dating from the seventeenth   century.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 15: 245–249.


Romains, Jules. 1920. La vision extra-rétinienne et le sens paroptique. Paris: Gallimard.


Romains, Jules. 1964. “La Situation de meconnu.” Les Nouvelles litteraires (23  janvier 1964): pp.


Shiah, Yung-Jong and Wai-Cheong Carl Tam. 2005. “Do Human Fingers “See”? — “Finger-Reading” Studies in the East and West.” European Journal of  Parapsychology 20(2): 117-134.


Virtanen, Reino. 1986. “Claude Bernard’s Prophecies and the Historical Relation of   Science to Literature” Journal of the History of Ideas 47(2): 275-286.