TEN FASICINATING INSIGHT TO THE WORLD OF BLINDNESS

Most of us can’t imagine life without sight.
Worsening eyesight is one of the curses of age,
and some know nothing different. They’ve been
blind since birth. Still, there have been some
amazing findings on the science and psychology
of blindness .
10 Deja Vu
Deja vu is defined as the feeling of having
already experienced something that’s happening
in the present time. As to how this happens,
one theory is that there’s a slight delay
between the time an image hits the eyes and
when it registers in the brain. Although we’re
still not sure if that’s true, it would seem to
suggest that someone who’s blind can’t
experience deja vu.
But strangely enough, they can.
The University of Leeds is at the forefront of
deja vu research. Although the phenomenon is
mildly annoying for most of us, it can be even
more irritating for those who suffer from so-
called “chronic deja vu.” The researchers also
documented the first known case of a blind man
who experienced deja vu , stressing that they’re
almost certain there are more cases.
For the blind man, deja vu was triggered by a
particular combination of events or activities.
The official report gave the example of deja vu
triggered by unzipping a jacket while a certain
song played on the radio. He experienced the
same feeling as he once had, which absolutely
rules out the idea that deja vu is only caused by
a blip in the optical nerve and pathways.
The blind man reported that the most common
trigger was sound , from a piece of music to a
snippet of conversation that created the
sensation of
familiarity. Often, sound combined
with another sense, such as smell, to produce
the feeling of having already experienced the
same thing.
As a result, the researchers are moving away
from a focus on a stimuli-based cause for deja
vu. Instead, they’re developing a new theory
that involves a disruption in brain signals and
how that impacts our familiarity with certain
experiences.
9 Navigating By
Geomagnetism
Researchers from the University of Tokyo have
been trying to determine if the brain can
substitute nontraditional sensory inputs for a
lack of visual stimuli. Recent tests on rats
suggest that the brain absolutely can and that it
can learn to interpret and “see” through other
methods—including the use of geomagnetism.
The researchers outfitted blind rats with the
same kind of digital compass that we have in our
smartphones. Microelectrodes stimulated the
rats’ brains and told them which direction they
were facing. When they were facing north, that
information was given to them by a stimulation
of the right visual cortex. Facing south? A
sensation in the left visual cortex.
The rats were then released into a maze, where
the researchers found they were building a
mental map of their surroundings using the
information transmitted to them via the
compass. Within two days, the blind rats were
able to navigate as quickly and accurately as the
control group (which could see). Behavior
patterns from the blind rats indicated that it
wasn’t just guesswork. They would head straight
and then adjust their direction no matter which
part of the maze they started in.
Yuji Ikegaya, the lead researcher, admits that he
has no idea how the rats are forming such a
complete mental map of the maze. But it does
suggest that the brain can learn to use other
types of input in place of visual stimuli and
become just as agile when using it.
8 Universal Body Language
We often rely on body language for everyday
communication. But it’s difficult to know
whether it’s a skill we learn from others or one
we have from birth. To find out, researchers
from the University of British Columbia and San
Francisco State University took a look at how
different cultures express different emotions—
like happiness and shame—through body
language. While part of their study analyzed
athletes who were participating in the 2004
Olympic Games, another part looked at
something even more interesting: participants in
the Paralympics.
The study included 108 people competing in
judo, with 12 who were blind from birth and 41
who had lost their sight later in life. The
researchers found that no matter what country
these competitors came from, they all exhibited
similar types of body language when they won or
lost.
Photos of the athletes after the competition
showed only the smallest variations. The sighted
competitors from North American and European
countries seemed to hide their shame and
disappointment at a loss slightly better than the
others. Blind competitors didn’t seem to
emphasize this as much, suggesting that the
athletes with sight were basing their reactions
more in line with the cultural norms for their
respective countries.
These results reinforce the idea that body
language isn’t something that we need to learn
from others. It’s just something that we all
know across cultural lines and in some cases,
that even joins us with our closest nonhuman
relatives. From the slumped postures of the
losers to the puffed-out chests of the winners,
our body language is something that we share
with animals like the gorilla and something that
we don’t need to learn from others.
7 Blindsight
Blindness can occur in many ways. We usually
think of it as a problem with our eyes, but in a
handful of cases, that’s not true. Some patients
—such as T.N. and D.B.—have what’s known as
“blindsight,” the ability to perceive and respond
to visual stimuli without realizing it.
T.N. was a doctor who suffered several strokes
that impacted the visual cortex on both the left
and right sides of his brain. While leaving his
eyes capable of receiving information, the
strokes appeared to destroy his brain’s ability
to process the information.
At the University of Bangor in Wales, tests
showed that T.N. had an uncanny ability to
perceive his surroundings without being
immediately aware of what he was doing. He
could identify emotions on the faces of people
in front of him, move to avoid obstacles in his
path, and even identify the alignment of a rod on
the wall. But he couldn’t detect light, as
demonstrated when he was shown a flickering
screen and asked to identify dark circles on it.
Similarly, D.B. had become half blind from an
operation he’d undergone to cure chronic
headaches. When given tests to determine how
well his blind side could interpret visual inputs,
he did surprisingly well in spite of his insistence
that he couldn’t see anything.
But this doesn’t happen just when navigating a
hallway or dodging obstacles. Patients with
blindsight have been shown to have physical
reactions to some stimuli. In particular, they
often show signs of stress when looking at a
picture of a terrified person.
Even scientists who have interviewed and tested
subjects with blindsight aren’t sure what’s going
on, but it may be related to V1, the part of the
brain that’s believed to translate stimuli into
our consciousness and make us aware that
we’re receiving information. When V1 is
damaged, there’s a disconnect between the
information our brains are receiving and what
we’re aware of receiving, allowing some blind
people to react to information they don’t even
realize is there.
6 The Advantage Of Having
Blind Parents
Making eye contact is an important part of
bonding at any age, and for babies, it’s one of
the first ways they learn to interact with others.
A team at Birkbeck, University of London,
decided to study how the lack of eye contact
experienced by the babies of blind parents
impacted them in their earliest months of
development. The research produced some
surprising results. Apparently, these babies
developed a work-around for communication
using skills not found in the babies of sighted
parents.
The communications skills of these babies and
their parents were observed when the infants
were six to 10 months old, 12 to 15 months
old, and 24 to 47 months old. The babies with
blind mothers made eye contact with and related
to sighted people as any other baby would, but
they also had quicker response times than their
peers born to sighted parents.
While the babies of blind mothers were found to
look at their mothers less than their peers did,
their interactions with other adults were much
the same as their peers. These babies also
developed other ways of communicating with
their blind mothers .
For example, the babies of blind women were
more vocal when dealing with their mothers than
with other adults or even their own fathers, so
it’s not surprising that the babies of blind
mothers also demonstrate better visual
memories and communication skills than their
counterparts. The researchers believe it’s
similar to when babies grow up in bilingual
homes. They learn multiple ways to
communicate with those at home and derive
long-term benefits from developing these
communication skills earlier in life.
5 Dreams Of The Blind
As recounted in the journal Sleep Medicine ,
Danish researchers recruited 50 volunteers to
study the difference in dreams between sighted
and blind people. The group included 14 people
who had been blind from birth, 11 people who
became blind after their first birthday, and 25
people who were sighted. For one month, the
volunteers recorded any details they could
remember about their dreams, including colors,
emotions, people, and other sensory
impressions.
While none of the blind participants reported
anything visual, almost 20 percent of them were
able to taste in their dreams, 70 percent
remembered touching something specific, and
86 percent heard sounds. All of these
percentages were much higher than the sighted
control group. Of the participants who had been
blind since birth, 93 percent reported sounds.
Interestingly, although the emotional content of
most regular dreams was about the same for
everyone, the blind were far more likely to
experience nightmares.
For those who were born blind, about 25
percent of their dreams were nightmares, much
higher than the average of 6 percent for sighted
people. One blind participant reported being
plagued with certain nightmares for her entire
life, often dreaming that she was falling, being
followed, or had been hit by a car.
Others dreamed of relentlessly embarrassing
social situations. Researchers believe that the
higher percentage of nightmares experienced by
blind people may be connected to the dangers
they face in their daily lives, with the frequency
of those nightmares related to the increased
processing time that blind people need to
commit those potential dangers to memory.
Dreams are supposedly a way of cementing
experiences into memories. If so, the frequent
nightmares of the blind are likely a
reinforcement of survival skills .
4 Visualizing The World
In addition to varying degrees of blindness,
there are also a surprising number of ways in
which blind people visualize the world.
According to Paul Gabias, who went completely
blind just after birth, he has no trouble seeing
his surroundings in his mind. From height to
depth to texture, it’s as vivid to him as it is to
any person with sight—with one major
difference. His mental images have no color .
Black and white doesn’t exist for him, either.
A psychologist and professor from the University
of British Columbia, Gabias has been studying
how a blind person creates mental maps of his
surroundings like a sighted person does. From a
series of brain-imaging scans, it appears that
the neural pathways creating mental maps in
sighted people are the same pathways that work
for the blind.
Information, such as that in Braille letters, goes
through the visual cortex and is processed in the
same way as visual inputs. The same is true for
people who use other sensory inputs to
echolocate. That information goes through the
visual cortex. In fact, volunteers who listened to
recordings of themselves using tongue clicks to
navigate received so much information from the
sounds that they could identify the objects that
were producing the echoes on the recording.
Others have different visual responses. BBC
journalist Damon Rose went blind from surgery
as a child and now reports that he misses the
darkness. He now sees an almost overwhelming
amount of light that never goes away,
regardless of the time of day or what he’s
doing. He describes seeing a brown background,
colorful geometric shapes, clouds, and
squiggles. At first, his “built-in fireworks ” gave
him the hope of seeing again. But now, he’s
certain that his brain is creating pictures for him
because it no longer receives any visual inputs.
3 Ghosts And The Phantom
Eye Syndrome
A lesser known version of phantom limb
syndrome, phantom eye syndrome (PES) occurs
in people who are blinded by the complete
removal of one or both eyes. When the
Liverpool Ocular Oncology Center decided to do
an in-depth study on PES, they found some
things that were expected. Their subject base,
which consisted of people who had lost an eye
to cancer between 4 months and 4.5 years
earlier, reported phantom pains in their missing
eye and the sensation of seeing things that
weren’t there. Many saw fireworks or
kaleidoscope-like auras, but a surprisingly high
number also saw ghosts.
Some PES patients reported seeing strangers
just at the edge of their peripheral vision. One
woman woke up one night to see a strange,
ghostly figure standing by her bed, while
another regularly saw a strange person walking
beside him. A third woman reported that she
could see ghostly figures whenever it was dark.
Yet another patient said that he could see
people moving at the edge of his vision, but
they invariably disappeared when he looked their
way.
The question of whether or not the blind are
more likely to see ghosts isn’t a recent one. An
1887 edition of Chambers’s Journal of Popular
Literature, Science and Art contains an article
about the subject. The author says that he
knows ghosts don’t exist, but the blind are
uniquely equipped to see them. After all, we’re
all spectral, ghostly images to a blind person,
argues the author, so the ghosts seen by a blind
person are absolutely real.
2 The Tricky Belief In Other
Superpowered Senses
The Montreal Neurological Institute headed up a
study to determine how much hearing improves
with blindness and whether musical talent
improves as well. The researchers discovered
that people who lost their sight at a young age
were much better at identifying changes in
pitch. But those who went blind when they were
older had test results similar to sighted people.
Apparently, a younger brain can assign areas
once used to process visual information to
handle other types of sensory input instead.
That’s a big difference from the theory that
blind people just pay more attention to their
other senses or that those senses become
more acute. According to the research, an
improvement in hearing or musical ability won’t
happen to every blind person, and it may not be
something that can be learned.
Another study from Georgetown University
Medical Center looked at what was happening in
the brain’s visual cortex when auditory stimuli
were routed through it. When blind volunteers
were asked to listen to sounds through
headphones, their visual centers lit up. However,
the visual centers of sighted volunteers
remained all but dormant throughout this
activity.
Compared to the brain’s auditory processing
center, the visual cortex is about twice as large
and complex. So while the blind might appear to
have more acute hearing, it has less to do with
their auditory system and more to do with their
brain remapping itself to use the visual cortex in
new ways.
1 Blindness And The
Perception Of Race
Race is a tricky thing. For most people, it’s
defined at least partially by skin color. So how
do blind people perceive race, and just as
importantly, what does that say about us as a
species?
University of California law professor Osagie
Obasogie interviewed people who had been blind
from birth about their views on race. Many of
his interviewees were offended by the idea that
being blind would make them less aware of a
person’s race and less racist. They didn’t believe
that blindness created morally superior people.
If anything, Obasogie was surprised to find that
many of his interviewees were more cognizant of
skin color and racial differences than sighted
people, mostly because the blind had learned
through various social interactions that it was a
big deal to most other people.
Obasogie is fascinated by what this says about
racism, indicating that it’s deeper than the color
of your skin. He found that race was just as
important to the blind, with many sharing their
ways of determining race before a conversation
—or date—went too far. From reaching up to
touch someone’s hair to being told not to rely
on accents or speech patterns, many blind
people have become just as preoccupied with
determining someone’s race as sighted people.
Obasogie found that the topic was deeply
polarizing for the people he interviewed. He
concluded that the blind are no more or less
racist than sighted people. But without the
visual identification of race, it’s a purely social
issue among the blind.
In his book Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race
through the Eyes of the Blind, Obasogie said
that race initially appeared to be driven by sight.
To ignore race is often said to be color-blind,
although his findings suggested quite the
opposite. Based on his research, Obasogie
believes that we need to reevaluate everything
about our society’s beliefs on race , biology, and
the differences between people.
By: Debra Kelly

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