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.

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A Tasty Program at the Rubin

The lady has an extraordinary palate, a palate of incredible finesse. She picks up hot ingredients, touches them, and she thinks about this image on the plate. She has the most disciplined execution on a plate that we’ve ever seen. But the palate is where it’s just extraordinary. And honestly, I know chefs with Michelin stars that don’t have palates like hers.                           –Chef Gordon Ramsay, MasterChef judge

Christine Ha’s blindness didn’t stop her from defeating more than 30,000 home cooks to secure the coveted MasterChef title, a $250,000 cash prize, and a cookbook deal. Her extraordinary story caught the attention of the organizers of the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, who invited her to talk to neuroscientist David Linden about the food-brain connection in a program entitled, “How Does a Blind Cook Cook?

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Photo credit: Asya Danilova

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Brainwave: The Social Worker for the Blind

(L-R) Sabriye Tenberken, Rosemary Mahoney, Sabine Kastner (Credit: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

(L-R) Sabriye Tenberken, Rosemary Mahoney, Sabine Kastner (Credit: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

In elementary school, I would stay after school to participate in a program where blind children came to interact and play with sighted children their own age. We would guide certain students around by hand and others by the sound of our voices. It quickly became clear to me that these children were very capable despite their handicap, even playing certain adapted sports. Blindness did not define them.

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Report on Progress: Vision

In the May edition of the Report on Progress, “Artificial Sight: Restoration of Sight through Use of Argus II, a Bioelectronic Retinal Implant,” Mark S. Humayun, M.D., Ph.D., discusses restoring sight to blind patients through a retinal implant:

More than 1 million Americans are legally blind and another 10% cannot detect light. With increased mean lifespan, the frequency of age-related eye disease will double in the next 30 years. A significant percentage of the non-treatable blindness stems from loss of photoreceptors (the rods and cones). Once photoreceptors are lost, restoring useful vision to blind patients has been impossible. However, after nearly a century of research into the use of electrical stimulation to restore sight, the Argus II system (Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. Sylmar, CA) was just approved by the FDA as the first medical implant to restore sight to patients who are blind from near total loss of their photoreceptors.

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Blindness and Sensory Perception

Ever since studying Oedipus Rex and The Odyssey in tenth-grade English class, I’ve been exposed to the idea of the blind seer. From at least the heyday of ancient Greece, people have thought that with loss of sight comes a heightening of other senses (which, in literature, means extraordinary perception and foresight, usually resulting in tragedy. Oedipus, do you really want Tiresias to tell you who killed your father?).

Recent research has found that many blind people do, in fact, experience a heightened sense of touch. But this may not occur merely due to blindness, but from increased use.  

Scientists at McMaster University tested 28 profoundly blind people and compared them to 55 seeing adults. When asked to identify the textured patterns pushed against their fingertips, blind participants performed better than sighted participants. Braille readers performed better still, especially when researchers tested their reading finger.

But when the textured patterns were pushed against the participants lower lips, there was no difference in the performance of participants. Therefore, concludes the study authors, use improves skill.

How can blindness impact the other senses?

Let’s look at smell: A study from researchers at the University of Copenhagen compared the olfactory responses of normally sighted study subjects to those blind from birth. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed more blood flow to primary and secondary olfactory areas in the congenitally blind subjects. A study from the University of Montreal—comparing odor detection abilities of 11 congenitally blind and 14 normally sighted study subjects—concluded that the blind participants had better senses of smell only in areas relating to environmental assessment.

Compensatory sensory perception appears to result from use, which can lead the brain’s connections to change and reorganize. A “third eye” of the blind may therefore exist in some neuroplastic fashion—but not in the way presented by Sophocles and Homer.

–Johanna Goldberg

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