The unique construction of the blind brain

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind recently had a two programme special (part 1, part 2) on the neuroscience of blindness, focusing on how blindness affects the development of the brain and how electronic neural implants and being developed to restore lost vision.

One of the most remarkable parts is the interview with psychologist Zoltan Torey, who became blind as a student in an industrial accident.

He has written The Crucible of Consciousness (ISBN 0195508726), a remarkable and highly regarded book on the conscious mind.

In the 1st part of the series, he describes how he constructs a a ‘visual’ representation of the world and how his blindness has informed his study of consciousness:

But what is new of course is just the way in which I am able to combine things in my brain without the interference of vision. Normally when people want to think they close their eyes because the flood of visual impressions that comes at you is a distraction. I have the privilege of not having to cope with that, of thinking without…I’m a sort of ‘thinkaholic’, if I might use this expression. This is the way I did my research work about psychology and the consciousness. Not being troubled with vision itself, it was possible for me to imagine complex internal systems, and so I have this marvellous opportunity to run an internal show like a movie director.

Researchers studying neuroplasticity (how the brain changes its structure and function) are now focusing on the brains of blind people, as it has become clear that, for example, the area of the brain normally functioning as the visual cortex in sighted people seems to be active during touch-based reading, which is something that doesn’t occur in sighted people.

The second programme looks at the latest research on ‘bionic’ retina implants, that aim to process light and, through implanted electrodes, stimulate the optic nerve to act as an artificial retina replacement.

Link to The Blind Brain: Part 1 of 2.
Link to The Blind Brain: Part 2 of 2 – The bionic eye.

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