Tag Archives: seeing

Plasticity and The Senses: Paul Bach-y-Rita

This October 2012 update reflects new links for the videos, as PBS is no longer hosting Wired Science programs.
In December 2007 the PBS Wired Science show included a piece about Bach-y-Rita’s research: Mixed Feelings. Here are some additional videos covering some of the same content: BrainPort Vision Through Tongue, BrainPort Balance Device.


The first time I heard of Paul Bach-y-Rita was on a public television broadcast of a special show about the brain. The story of Paul Bach-y-Rita fills the first chapter of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

The stories of Bach-y-Rita – how his father recovered from a stroke and the impact this had on Bach-y-Rita’s career, the people with severe balancing issues who were essentially cured by his discoveries and innovations, and the people who had no vision who were able to begin to see – are compelling in and of themselves. They are very human stories, derived from the work of a man who was altruistically motivated.

A major contribution of Paul Bach-y-Rita’s to neuroscience was in thinking of the brain as “polysensory”, meaning that the sensory areas of the brain, rather than only processing information from just the senses that normally report to those areas, are actually able to process information from any of the senses. The stories referenced above, relating to balance and vision, rely heavily on the polysensory ability of the brain to take input from the tongue and route it to the areas of the brain dealing with balance or vision.

Amazing? Absolutely! His work is a reminder of how adaptable our brains are, and makes me wonder how many more hidden secrets are waiting to be revealed. You can read more about the science behind Bach-y-Rita’s efforts in these articles:

On Wisconsin Magazine: Balancing Act (Spring 2007)

Discover Magazine: Can You See With Your Tongue? (June 2003)

Discover Magazine: Artifical Sight (August 2001)

College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Tongue seen as portal to the brain (2001)

And on an unrelated note, F, Happy Birthday tomorrow!

Listen with your Eyes

Listen with your eyes closed, because what you see influences what you hear.

Thus exhorted Wouter Snoei, a composer from The 192 loudspeaker experience, a concert we attended in Amsterdam with our friends.


Peter Elsea, for the University of California at Santa Cruz electronic music studios, wrote an essay on Hearing and Perception. Although he posted the essay in 1996 (so there may be more current research available), I found it an interesting accompaniment to the 192 loudspeaker concert.

Returning to Wouter’s exhortation, I wear glasses, and wearing glasses impacts my ability to hear. In loud environments particularly, I need to see the speaker’s face and lips to influence the odds of properly hearing what is being said. More on this idea is available in The University of Kent’s peer-reviewed electronic academic journal article posited by Michael A. Forrester, Auditory Perception and Sound As Event: Theorising Sound Imagery in Psychology. If you don’t feel like reading the entire article, skip ahead to section 5.

I suspect if we had kept our eyes open during the loudspeaker experience, we would surely have processed the sounds as coming from the 192 speakers. By listening with my eyes closed, I heard the sounds but conjured up images of the places or people from where the sounds may have emanated. (And yes, I did keep them closed during each of the four pieces!) This is not unlike listening to a radio, as discussed in Forrester’s article. In many instances, listening while seeing combine to enhance the ability to process the sound.

At the HyperPhysics site, hosted by the Georgia State University Department of Physics and Astronomy, you can learn more about the physics of the ear and hearing. And you can get an earful of information at Neuroscience for Kids, including experiments to test your hearing.

How We Know What We See

Understanding the physical act of seeing is almost easy compared to trying to understand the mental process – how we know what it is that we see.

When we look at something our eyes see outlines and shapes, and it is thanks to our prior knowledge that the outlines and shapes become known, whole objects. The Washington University School of Medicine has an online Neuroscience Tutorial, and the section on the Eye and retina includes this comment:

“Well, our entire visual system exists to see borders and contours. We see the world as a pattern of lines, even things as complex as a face. We judge colors and brightness by comparison, not by any absolute scale.”

So how, exactly, does our brain make sense out of what the eyes see? St. Luke’s Cataract & Laser Institute – Anatomy of the Eye breaks the eye down into its parts and describes them each in manageable chunks, including diagrams with some of the descriptions. Turns out the optic nerve is the information highway between the retina and the brain, sending electrical impulses from the retina that are then transformed into sense-making images in the brain.

An article on the UniSci site, To See, Brain Assembles Sketchy Images Eyes Feed It, sums this process up quite succinctly:

“The brain interprets this sparse information, probably merging it with images from memory, to create the world we know…”

In a John’s Hopkins study, reported in a Science Daily article, In the Mind’s Eye: How The Brain Makes A Whole Out Of Parts, one of the report’s authors states that

“Vision doesn’t happen in the eye, … It happens at multiple processing stages in the brain.”

No part of the brain is an island, each part has assistance from other parts. So it is with making sense out of what the eyes see. Previous memories, each stored in other areas of the brain, contribute to the understanding of the whole image.

And as with so many of our brain functions, seeing and understanding what we see both happen with such rapidity that under normal circumstances we don’t stop to think twice about it. As I have become reacquainted with the art of sketching, however, I now do think twice when looking and am better poised to appreciate what it is I am seeing.

Vases ~ Faces

Picture books and children. They go together like milk and cookies. Some picture books have one or two words to accompany the pictures, but it is the images that fill the pages. As toddlers, my kids loved the small colorful board books which entertained them with images and gave them something to chew on as well!

Robert Greenleaf, on page 22 of his 2005 edition of Brain Based Teaching: Making Connections for Long-Term Memory & Recall, shares research showing that when learners create illustrations they improve their recall of information by up to four times more than without the use of illustrations.

John Hopkins researchers have studied How the Brain Understands Pictures. Their conclusion is that the brain sees in wholes while at the same time allowing scrutiny of the parts.

vases-faces.pngGo ahead and try for yourself the Vase/Faces exercise that is referenced in the Hopkins article. You can use pencil and paper or do it online or even try both! At the left is my try from December 2001. My notes from then state that the chin was confusing to draw and I had difficulty determining which way (right/left, in/out) to go with the outline. Also noted was that I drew the right profile too quickly! I did the exercise from the book, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

On artist Charley Parker’s blog, lines and colors, he has an article about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which describes the class process quite accurately. I know first hand, having been a student in Brian Bomeisler’s week-long workshop in August, 2005, and then again in his Saturday sketching session in February of this year. If taking a class is not in your plans, but you are interested in the exercises, try the New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook: Guided Practice in the Five Basic Skills of Drawing.

The sketching session, in particular, reminded me that taking time to look and see absolutely enhances perception and understanding.

p.s. Posted from Paris, city of lights – yes – but also city of art where there is so much to see!

Seeing Is Believing

A search for “how the brain sees” turned up Harvard research on just that – studying the brain as it is seeing. You can read the text or even better, watch the movie and see the brain light up as it is seeing.

How do the eyes and brain do their job? Of all my senses, I find sight the most intriguing because our eyeballs are so different from the rest of our body, which is coated in skin, nails and hair. I can look at those parts of my body and begin to understand them, but unless I look in a mirror, I cannot watch my eyes as they perform their job.

Tutis Vilis, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, has an amazing set of Flash movies available online for his graduate courses. For the purposes of this post, I steer you to The Physiology of the Senses beginning with The Eye. Indeed, we have a very complex system that allows us “to see”.

KidsHealth provides another look at how the eye works, written in an accessible style that is not overly medical: A Big Look at the Eye.

p.s. Posted in Amsterdam from the home of friends. I was last here some thirty years ago but have very little visual memory of the city. My friends say it has changed substantially since then!