How we learn in the dark

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A recent visit to Paris's Dans le Noir restaurant got me thinking about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK) learning styles and what happens when one of the most heavily relied-upon modalities among seeing people is taken away from them.

This restaurant chain (in Paris and London) sells a unique dining experience by removing all light from their dining area and employing legally blind persons as waitstaff. You enter into a (lit) bar waiting area, empty all of your belongings and sources of light (including cell phones) into a locker, order your meal (a set menu with several mix-and-match course and drink options--we chose not to know the actual dishes before we ate them), perhaps enjoy an apertif, and then you're led by your blind waiter through two black velvet curtains to your table, which is in a room so dark that you cannot see your own hand 2 inches in front of your face (though one of my dining companions insisted he could--and later joked that he spent much of the evening waving his hand in front of his face while his mind filled the images in his head). You drink your wine, pour your water, and eat your dinner with a knife and fork completely in the dark. The noise level of the dining room quickly elevates as people who normally rely on vision for so many communication cues are forced to focus their auditory sense on identifying speakers and maintaining conversations; the waitstaff must come in to shush the room periodically throughout the service.

I am a predominantly kinesthetic learned myself, so my first instinct was to feel out my surroundings and understand the size and shape of the table, where the table settings were located, what material the furniture was made of, and how far the wall extended behind and beside me. My eyes instantly interpreted the tactile information into a mental picture of my surroundings, and I used this mental map to "see" the world as dinner went on. As soon as the dinner plates came to the table, there was nothing I could do but stick my left hand into the food and feel for textures, heat, and moisture. Most of the ingredients were eventually recognizable by smell and taste (we later cross-checked with a photo-album menu in the waiting area) but, to quote my fellow contextresponser Enric, "Food should be enjoyed by all five senses." Perhaps we are particularly sensitive to the visual aesthetics as designers, but I realized during this meal how much my enjoyment of food is influenced by visual data--and how this particular meal was less culinarily meaningful to me because I couldn't see the structure and the colors on my plate.

Nevertheless, a trip to Dans le Noir is truly a "walking in someone else's mocassins" worthwhile experience for creating empathy. I'm sure people with other learning styles will have different stories to tell about how they adjust to the darkness.

5 comments:

    Sounds amazing, I would love to go! I really got to love eating rice and curry with my hands in india, addig a sense of touch that makes the whole experience more vivid.

    Last weekend I was pleasantly surprised when a bagel I'd written off for looking too bready turned out to be chewy and delicious.

    Also...I think there is thankfully a growing interest in a more well-rounded idea of design that moves away from being visual-centric. I think it's kind of a new way to think about Universal Design. This book is actually very good and has lots of cool examples of designs that incorporate or are even designed for different senses:

    http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11673

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