A New Way to See the World

Sam Jacobsen, Reporter

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When you cover your eyes what do you see?  Nothing, right?  That must be what blind people see, right?  Well, if that’s what you think, then you couldn’t be more wrong.  When you look around you what do you see?  A couple of trees?  A rock?  How do you see these things?  Well, thats an obvious answer, you use your eyes!  Once again, that answer isn’t completely true.

The truth is your eyes aren’t how you see things, they’re just another medium of getting the information you want to see to the brain.  Your brain is what sees the things that surround you.  Every time you look at something, light bounces off that object, passes through your eyes for a brief processing, and is then sent to your brain.  Once there, hundreds of electric pulses course across your brain’s pathways and, voilà! That tree you’re seeing– just a series of pulses in your brain.

But, you need your eyes to fire up those electrical pulses, right?  Wrong again.  For a long time people have assumed that when you suffer from blindness not only your eyes go dead, but also the parts of your brain associated with seeing.  But, recently scientists have realized that may not be entirely true.  It all starts with a man named Daniel Kish.  Kish was born in Montebello, California in 1966; at thirteen months he lost his eyes due to cancer.  And, what sets him aside from many other blind people is the fact that he CAN see.  Not only can he see, but he can lead hikes, and ride bikes.  How does he do it?  Simple– he uses echolocation.

Echolocation is the ability to locate oneself through making noises, like a dolphin or a bat.  Try pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth and making a clicking noise with your eyes closed.  Anything extraordinary happen?  Likelihood is that nothing did– you heard the initial click of your tongue and after that you couldn’t see or hear anything.  That’s because people aren’t naturally born with the ability to use echolocation, they have to develop it.  Kish has been called “superhuman” quite a few times, and people will actually pay to see him ride his bike, but in truth there isn’t anything superhuman about him.

Kish, and many scientists, believe that the ability to use echolocation can be acquired by anybody.  How?  The answer is simple.  It’s that ancient dance of life to adapt to survive.  The fact of the matter is that your brain wants to see what’s happening around it — it NEEDS to in order to survive.  When the main medium of seeing (the eyes) is disabled then, it naturally tries to find a different way to see.  The brain’s driving want  to see is what makes people, like Kish, develop this skill.

When Kish lost his eyes his mother had to make a huge decision on what to do– would she let him try to live a normal and playful life with no eyes, or would she decide to keep him safe from harm?  Faced with this hard decision his mother came to the only decision that made sense– to raise her son as if he COULD see.  She put the pressure on him to make it through life without any eyes.  So what did he do?  He learned to use clicks to find his way through life.  He climbed trees, he walked to school unaided, and developed a love for biking.  Sure, he hit a couple of trees and sustained quite a few major injuries, but that didn’t stop him.

The lack of help from others and the need to survive drove him to develop his echolocation skills.  He has developed such atoned echolocation skills that he can  tell you if there’s something in front of him, and can tell you exactly what’s in front of him using just his echolocation.

When you drive and are looking down the road you can see things on the sidewalk with your peripheral vision; the objects might be a little blurry, but you can still see them.  Seeing via echolocation has been described by many people like seeing everything like that– a slightly blurry object.  The major differences are that letters and symbols can’t be perceived, and colour isn’t visible.  The lack of colour in a blind world is hard to comprehend being that black and white are also not visible.  Understanding this is virtually impossible to people that can see normally, being that we normally perceive our world through light.

The fact that we see our world via light is exactly how echolocation works, or rather, exactly how it doesn’t work.  We see objects when radiant energy bounces off an object and hits our eyes.  The colour of the object we see is based on which light is absorbed by the object and which is reflected.

360px-Light-wave.svg

Seen above is an representation of a light wave.  Seen below is a representation of a sound wave.

loudspeaker-waveform

As you can see the two waves are very similar; however, light waves tend to be electromagnetic and sound waves tend to be mechanical.  So, why shouldn’t sound waves work like light waves?  Well, as it turns out, sound waves DO work like light waves.  We already know that sound works to provide information to our ears so we can hear things, but recent discoveries have revealed that that sound can also trigger regions of the brain associated with vision in blind people.

As previously mentioned, people have assumed for along time that when a person goes blind the parts of the brain associated with vision die out.  But, a study to see if this true proved that that may not be entirely true.  MRIs’ were taken of a group of blind people as clicks were played and bounced off of certain objects.  What they found was amazing.  As the sound was played many of the blind people’s brains lit up in the sections devoted to visual perception.  The amount of work in the brain varied between people depending on how developed their echolocation skills were prior to the experiment.  So does this mean that anyone can do this?  The answer is a bit complicated.  Experiments like this have been performed on many seeing people too, and the visual sections of the brain don’t light up to audio stimuli.  But, these skills can still be developed.

A common misconception of people that use echolocation to see is that the way they can do this is because they have superhuman hearing.  But, they don’t.  When Ben Underwood was diagnosed with retinal cancer at age two he had two choices: keep his eyes, continue with chemotherapy, and possibly die; or, have his eyes removed and hopefully live a full and normal life.  It was decided that his eyes needed to come out.  When the surgery was over his mother told him something that would change his life– his mother told him that even though he had no eyes, he could still see with his other senses.  He took this to heart, and with the undaunting support of his family, he quickly became a fantastic echolocation user (and a pretty good basketball player).  Underwood was even praised as one of the best users of echolocation in the world by Kish himself, and, unlike Kish, he often doesn’t use a cane to help with his navigation skills.  Underwood went through multiple hearing tests and they all came back with the same result: he most certainly did not have superhuman hearing.

But how did he do it then?  It all comes back to the brain’s want to see what’s happening.  It’s that drive for life to find a way to survive even in the most extreme of situations.  It’s what allows life to survive in the hottest of deserts and the coldest of mountains.  But, then why can’t all people be able to adapt and develop the skill to echolocate?  The truth is that all humans MIGHT actually be able to do this.  What’s holding most of us back is the fact that most of the time we don’t actually need to use echolocation, we can see normally.

But what’s holding other blind people back from doing what Kish and Underwood do?  The largest answer is, we are.  Both Kish and Underwood were expected from a very young age to get by on their own, so thats what they did.  But, many blind people are treated like they can’t do anything, and people don’t usually expect them to do anything.  And when people are labeled as something they start to act like that thing.  So, when a blind person is labeled and treated like useless they tend not develop the skills to be useful.

The blind are often told that they can’t do certain things, and that clicking isn’t socially acceptable.  It is this demining of the blind that leads to this helplessness they often suffer from.  Maybe then if  this newly found “sixth sense” that humans can use  is to develop and spread to help more people, people need to strive find a perfect balance between supporting the blind, and letting them struggle to become self sufficient, happy humans, just like Kish and Underwood

Kish is in his late 40s and continues to teach people around the world how to use echolocation.  He is the first-ever blind orientation and mobility specialist.  Ben Underwood lived with his family in California until January 19 2009 when he died of the same cancer that took his eyes at the age of 16.

 

For more information visit these two NPR stories:

Batman pt. 1

Batman pt. 2

 

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