How to Perceive Without Sight

How is it that we construct our reality? What is it we think we know, and what do we actually know? These are questions that led Columbia University neuroscientist Jacqueline Gottlieb to a career studying attention, decision-making, and curiosity. And at Saturday’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC, we learned how these questions were addressed by someone who lost his sight at age 25.

At “How to Perceive Without Sight,” Gottlieb spoke with entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina, at age 12. Prior to losing his vision, he already had achieved status as a child actor, lawyer, Supreme Court clerk, and a successful business owner. But when he lost his sight in early adulthood, he had to overcome depression and learn to shift his attention to his remaining senses to navigate the world around him.

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Isaac Lidsky, photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

“It was an eye-opening process,” quipped Lidsky, who came to realize that his other senses provided him with “phenomenal” information. Rather than passively observing the world through sight as before, he now had to make a conscious effort to pay more attention to that other information.

“I don’t hear better, but I do listen better,” he said.

The truth of the matter is that there is more information coming through our senses than we could ever hope to process, said Gottlieb. Instead we are forced to select what we pick up from the environment based on the primary goals of human nature: survival and reproduction, she explained.

On a fundamental level, this is automatic in the brain, she said. People look for patterns and cues, corroborated by multiple senses and agreed upon by multiple people. The resulting representation of reality is useful for survival. For example, driving or even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich are accomplished by learning a routine of sampling information.

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Jacqueline Gottlieb, photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

But going back to Lidsky’s experience, can we consciously decide what to pay attention to?

Yes, said Gottlieb. People have filters, and need to train the brain to focus on the task at hand, almost like training a muscle.

When Lidsky lost his sight, he shifted his attention to hearing as his dominant sense, improving his listening speed in the process. But ultimately, he said that the way he perceives the world is not so different from seeing it; he aggregates a continuous collection of details and then builds a conceptual understanding of what’s around him.

Sight or no sight, it is fascinating to consider that due to personal differences, we all have a distinctive vision of the world around us. Factors such as expectations, inference, moods, and emotions contribute to perception, said Gottlieb. Lidsky experienced first-hand how debilitating fear could be to inhibit learning and attention, saying that when faced with blindness he “knew his life was over.” Yet now at age 37, he calls his blindness “a blessing,” which forced him to be brutally honest with himself about his idea of success and values–something he details in his new book Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly. You can also watch his short TED talk from 2016, viewed more than two million times.

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives partnered with the Rubin Museum of Art to present this event as part of Brain Awareness Week.

– Ann L. Whitman

One response

  1. I became a neuroscientist after a 1992 head injury and development of hydrocephalus. The two biggest health/disability challenges it left me with were vestibular and memory challenges, which for vestibular I intuitively developed methods out of my work with drumming, or drum circles. I had been using my hands & fingers to tap and “cue” movement for several years before one day realizing what I was doing. These cues became part of my autonomous nervous system. For my cognitive challenges, in the 1990s I created 16×24″ decision trees. And when the first PDA came out in 1999, I began to work with these. A couple years earlier in 1997, I designed & patented a diagnostic method for evaluating CNS shunt function that was to be a stand alone PDA app some years before smart phones. Despite launching a startup company for the DiaCeph Test, I could never get the funding I needed.

    In the years that followed, I began to innovate a variety of tech and mobile apps, and have fallen in love with using images & photograph to help my memory and related life challenges. I am very much into use of colors in both clothing and in images. I’m trying to think of how this might be made available to Isaac. I’ll work on it. I find that colors can influence and help regulate mood and energy, a critical need when you live with a challenging chronic illness. I’m also developed an autoimmune or viral disorder in recent years that among other complaints, has led to pain, fatigue, inflammation and pachymeningitis of my brain.

    My work with drumming led me to combine it with shooting basketball, and this is another application I think may interest Isaac. I began using shooting baskets in 2007 to gauge and help my balance problems. Then I befriended a man who loved to shoot baskets too, and we began to talk philsophy and brain science on the court, where one day I posed the question: Where does the shot come from. Well after several more years of shooting and contemplation, I figured it out and published this very large blog in 2015:The Sports Science vs the Brain Science of Basketball: Where does the Shot come from?

    It is my visualization & mindfulness techniques I employ in basketball that I think might interest Isaac. It is “seeing” without seeing, using another part of your brain, and body kinesthetics, to put the ball in the basket. I find when I am able to clear my head and achieve that “Nirvana” place, the ball finds the hoop with incredible frequency. I included this little known brain functionality called “trance heightened states” in 2011 in a power point presentation I delivered at Wright State University on rhythm in STEM3 education.

    Today, 25 years post my original injury and today suffering from pachymeningitis, I often use this “other part of my brain” to solve problems, remember things, shoot baskets, and play Afro Cuban drums when my executive level frontal lobe functions fails me. I suspect it has much to do with the limbic system. Though I have my sight, I often have difficulty with balance/orientation and sensitivity to light and sound, where I shut my eyes and can better sense what is going on around me as Isaac describes. I was also influenced by American Indian culture as a child and learned to see well at night, or sense traffic when crossing a street. The brain challenges have left this often unreliable now. So I find it helps to fully close my eyes. The brain is an amazing thing! Stephen

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