Since the beginning of medical history, it has been thought that infants who lose their vision have little to no hope to restore their vision later in life. This is because if you lose your vision early in life, then the visual cortex will not develop properly as you grow older. However, some researchers are beginning to believe that people who suffer from blindness can learn to process visual information. Instead of using images though, they’ll listen to sounds, and process the sound visually.
Helping Blind People ‘See’
The research for this groundbreaking study came from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They found that by using specialized photographic and sound machinery, they were able to play sounds and rhythms for blind people, and suddenly the blind could describe what they were “seeing.”
Through countless trials, the visually impaired were able to describe photographs, letters and numbers. For the first time, scientists are beginning to question what they once knew about the visual cortex and how it processes images.
For this study, scientists at Hebrew University of Jerusalem used devices known as sensory substitution devices (SSD). They devices appear similar to a pair of sunglasses, and in fact, they were designed to look exactly like sunglasses, so that maybe one day, they can be worn on the streets and help the blind visualize their surroundings.
The SSD that the scientists of this study used were called EyeMusic, a pair of black sunglasses that has a small camera mounted on top of the frames. The glasses then hook up to a handheld camera through a small wire and have a pair of earphones connected to them.
To operate these glasses, one simply has to point the handheld camera at the object of interest, and then a cascade of musical notes will fill their ears. By deciphering the musical notes, a person can easily visualize the object in front of them!
This may all seem a bit too futuristic to some, but it has been proven over and over to be an effective way for the blind to actually see. Whenever someone points the handheld camera at the object of interest, the SSDs will convert the image into something that researchers termed ‘soundscapes.’
These soundscapes are musical notes that are patterned by a very predictable algorithm. By working with the device for a few weeks, people can easily pick up the syntax of the algorithm and begin to see! Researchers found that some people picked up the algorithms with as little as 70 hours of training.
Sound as Images
The researchers at Hebrew University of Jerusalem also decided to test what would happen in the brain when the blind test subjects learned how to see with their new soundscapes. In sighted people, an area of the brain known as the Visual Word Form Area allows people to read and decipher letters. It is activated by reading only, and will not be activated when you simply see an object without words. For example, looking at a couch will not cause the Visual Word Form Area to become activated, but reading the newspaper will.
So, it would be assumed that the Visual Word Form Area of the blind test subjects would never be activated, since they’ve never actually seen words (reading Braille doesn’t activate this portion of the brain). However, scientists were amazed to find that after being trained with the EyeMusic, the Visual Word Form Area was becoming activated whenever the subjects pointed their hand held cameras at letters!
This part of the research absolutely astonished researchers. These findings can lead scientists to believe that certain areas of the brain that are essentially shut off in the blind, can be retrained and turned back on in order to process information visually.
This means, that the blind can learn to process information visually by using the EyeMusic or other SSDs. But, it also gives hope to the scientific and visually impaired communities, that maybe someday SSDs could be helpful in restoring the vision in blind people!
This study also obviously amazed the visually impaired community. Not only did it give many blind people hope to process information in a different way, it essentially allowed them to see images for the first time.