Blindness is just another way of seeing | Lotfi Merabet | TEDxCambridge

Blindness is just another way of seeing | Lotfi Merabet | TEDxCambridge

Translator: Zane Mitrevica
Reviewer: Ilze Garda I’m going to ask you
to do something for me. I’d like you to watch this video and imagine you’re standing
at this intersection. The traffic is going back and forth, people are trying to get
to where they’re going; busy, busy day. Next to you is this man,
who happens to be blind. So as you’re waiting
for your turn to cross the street, what kind of thoughts are going
through your mind right now? Is it curiosity? Is it indifference? You might be feeling a sense of pity. You might be also feeling
a sense of relief that you yourself are not blind. I’m not judging. Now, let’s say this person
starts chatting with you. He says: “Excuse me, I’m from out of town,
I don’t know my way around. Can you tell me how do I get
to the subway station?” How do you give directions
to someone who can’t see? I’ll give you a hint. Pointing? (Laughter) Saying something like “over there”?
(Laughter) Not very helpful for a blind person. Let’s make this really interesting,
let’s say now all of a sudden — Can we go back, please? Let’s say now all of a sudden,
you lose your sight. You become profoundly blind.
You see nothing in front of you. And, by the way, the light has changed,
and it’s time for you to cross the street. Now, what are you thinking about? So, obviously a very, very scary feeling. This is completely hypothetical. Not that you shouldn’t stand
next to a blind person because it’s contagious, you’ll lose
your sight; that’s not the point. What I’m trying to say here
is that, as a blind person, they’re not necessarily scared
the same way that you are. It’s normal that you’re scared
because you’re highly dependent on your vision to find your way around,
but a blind person has learned to adapt and not worry
about these same sort of things. Pierre Villey was a French writer,
blind himself, and he said: “A sighted person judges the blind
not for what they are, but by the fear that blindness inspires.” In other words,
the way that we judge people, the way that we think blind people
can and cannot do, is largely driven by our own innate fears and how we think about what it must be like
to be blind and to lose our sight. But again, this is a misconception. We’re scared, and it turns out
that the American Foundation for the Blind conducted a survey. They asked a thousand people
to review a series of health conditions and say which one do you think
would have the greatest overall impact on your quality of life. And number one was blindness, ranked higher than AIDS, cancer,
stroke and heart disease, all four of which are potentially
life-threatening conditions. I can tell you from my experience, I’ve never had a blind patient
who had died from being blind. But yet, as sighted people, what this survey tells us
is that we would rather live with a potentially
life-threatening condition and take our chances,
than live as a blind person. Where does this fear come from? Why are we so scared about blindness? I think, like many things in life,
we’re scared about what we don’t know, what we don’t understand. The important thing to think about here
is there is a way to understand this. If you want to understand
what blindness is, you have to first understand
what it’s not. It turns out I like to go
to cocktail parties and events, and I ask people:
“What do you think it’s like to be blind?” And I realized I don’t get
invited back very often. (Laughter) I know, right? (Laughter) But when I do, this is what I hear,
this is the answer: “Darkness. Black. Dense fog.” I had one person tell me that blindness
must be like being locked inside a coffin. But I assure you as a sighted person, blindness has nothing to do
with living in the dark, and here’s one way I know. This is Esref Armagan,
he was born with one eye. The one eye he does have
was severely damaged at a very, very young age,
possibly even from birth. Despite being profoundly blind,
Esref is a painter. I’m going to show you
some of his paintings. And one more. All of you as sighted people
can completely understand the contents of his paintings. There’s nothing that would suggest
that this was done by a blind person. But you have to wonder, how can you paint an ocean scene
if you’ve never seen an ocean? The answer is: behind his eyes that don’t see
is a brain that does see. How do I know that? Because we looked inside his brain. We used a technique called
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI. This is a brain scanning technique that allows you to look inside the brain
and identify parts of the brain that are associated
with a particular task. So we asked Esref to lie in the scanner
and make a series of drawings for us. What we found was this spot of activity in the back of his brain,
called the occipital cortex. Why is this interesting? It turns out, this is exactly
the same part of the brain that’s active if you’re a sighted person
looking at the drawings and paintings. So this is the visual part of the brain
in someone who’s sighted, but Esref, who’s blind, is using exactly the same
part of the brain to paint. So when you think about it, maybe blindness is
just another way of seeing. Certainly at the level of the brain,
it’s quite interesting. In fact, I asked Esraf:
“Why do you paint?” He said: “I paint because I want
to show the world the images that are live in my mind. And when I paint, and I show
my drawings to the sighted people, and they tell me what they see,
I feel connected to the sighted world.” Clearly this is not somebody
living in the dark. Let’s now move to our situation
of our friend whom we met earlier, who is trying to find
his way through the city. Does he have an image of his mind
as he’s walking through? How is he able to find his way? Well, how do you find your way? You use tools, you may have
navigation in your car, you may look at maps, for example. You use the information you gather
from your sight to make adjustments, gather information, identify landmarks;
blind people are exactly the same. The only difference, of course, is
they’re not using visual cues. Our friend, for example,
is listening to traffic. He knows that when the traffic stops,
that’s probably the safe time to cross. He’s also feeling vibrations in his cane when tapping on the street
to follow the sidewalk. He knows that when the cane drops,
that’s the end of the curb and that’s when the street starts,
for example. But there are situations that blind people
find particularly challenging. That is when they arrive at a place
that they’re not familiar with. This isn’t very, very surprising. Think about if you go
to a large shopping mall, or an airport, for example. It’s very, very hard
to find your way around if you don’t have a sense
of the overall layout of the building. So with this challenge in minds, we wanted to come up
with new tools, new approaches to help blind people
circumvent this challenge. In particular, we wanted
to work with blind children, because we know that this is a skill
that’s very important to develop early on. We needed an approach
that we felt they would enjoy using. What do blind kids,
or what do kids in general like to do? Play video games. If you have a teenager at home,
you know exactly what I’m talking about. Video games today are immensely popular. They have an incredible level
of visual detail and realism that we’ve never seen before. But the important thing to think about is,
just because video games are visual, doesn’t mean that they necessarily
have to be visual to play them, or to enjoy them. I’m going to get back
to this point in just a second. I want to take you back to the mid ’90s,
to a video game called Doom. Probably very, very popular. If you know this video game like I do, I’ve wasted months of my life
playing this video game. (Laughter) In Doom, the idea is
you find yourself in a maze. You have to find your way
through this maze looking for various items and at the same time avoiding
these monsters that are chasing you. But to succeed at this game,
you have to build a map in your mind, in order to find your way out
and start the next level. It turns out I have a friend
named Jaime Sanchez who is a computer scientist, and he developed Audio Doom,
which is exactly the same game, except it’s adapted for blind children. You’re not using visual cues
to find your way around, you’re using audio-based cues. So, for example, a knocking sound,
if you hear it in your right ear, that means there’s a door to your right. If I hear a growling sound in both ears, it means that there’s a monster
in front of me. By listening to these sounds,
as the child walks through this maze, they’re able to find their way
and navigate through this labyrinth here. Now, the interesting thing is
that after they’ve played this game, if you give the child Lego pieces and you ask him to build a map
of what he’s just walked through, it turns out that they can build a perfect representation of the map
that they walked through, even though they’ve never seen the maze. In fact, they’re doing this
purely based on their auditory cues. If you look at the start point,
the end point, every dead end, every step,
every door is accounted for, which means that the map
in their mind is accurate, and they can generate this
based purely on auditory cues. I asked Jaime: “How complicated a maze
can you make with this little system?” He says: “As big and as complicated
as you want.” We had this idea to kind of modify
the game a little bit. We modified it to make it
a bit more complicated, we added lots of rooms and so on. We added these jewels,
that was the goal of the game. Your job is to go through this maze,
all these little rooms, find these jewels that are hidden, and you have to be careful:
if these monsters catch you, they take the jewel and hide it
somewhere else in the maze. Because these are kids, we have to keep them motivated,
and this is how we did it. What the kids didn’t know was
[that] the maze that they were playing in was based on a floor plan
of an actual building that exists, that they’ve never been to before. And after the game,
we didn’t give them Lego pieces, we took them to the building. We said: “Now, can you
find your way around?” It turns out, they can,
and they do it quite well. You can put them virtually anywhere
in the real building and ask them: “From this start point,
can you get to this room?” And they do extremely well,
about 85% in terms of their success rate. It also turns out
that there’s a correlation between their navigation success
and gameplay. In other words, the better they play
the game, the more jewels they find, the better they do
on these navigation tasks. Remember, they’ve never seen,
never been to this building before. In fact, they didn’t even know
we were going to take them to a building. All of this was purely based on gameplay. Here’s to show you also how well they get
a sense of the layout of the building. You could put them
in various locations and say: “Based on where you’re standing right now, what’s the quickest way
out of the building?” They can find the shortest route as well, which means they can manipulate
the information in their mind for the purposes of finding shortcuts,
alternate routes and so on. Remember, we never told them
to memorize the layout of the building, or the maze, or anything like that. We just say: “This is a game, this is
how you play it. We’ll talk afterwards.” So you can think now, as a platform, we want to expand this
at a much larger level. We want to apply this in situations where people, or blind individuals,
might use this information to find their way, say, through an airport
or a mall, or, say, the subway station. You could think of our friend here
using this information to find his way to the subway. I’m not saying that you
have to play a game every time you want to go somewhere, but the preps,
the idea of using the sounds, or spatial audio sounds, as a way to generating a map
in your mind, seems to hold, and that’s the focus
of our research right now. I want to leave you with one last
piece of information to this puzzle. What parts of the brain are active when this person, or these gamers,
are playing the game? So we went back to our fMRI machine,
we found our best gamers, and we asked them to find their way
through the maze. What we found was that a number
of brain areas were active. In the front of the brain, – this is the part responsible
for decision making and planning, this is the frontal cortex – we also saw activity responsible
for touching the keyboard keys because they use keys
to move around into the maze. This is activity associated
with identifying sounds. It’s logical, they’re using sounds to identify the objects
and find their way through the maze. And if I showed you
the other hemisphere here, notice there’s lots of activity
in this, again, visual cortex. So just like Esref, our blind painter,
who was using his visual brain to paint, our gamers are using their visual brain
to find their way around. Now, this is not a new idea, it turns out a lot of researchers
have found similar findings. It turns out
that the visual brain is active when blind people read Braille,
when they identify sounds, when they recall words from memory,
and finally identifying smells as well. So that’s the focus of research now: understanding why do blind people use
their visual brain for non-visual tasks, and how is this related
to the compensation of not having sight. So we have come full circle. Blindness is not living in the dark. Blindness is living with other abilities. It’s a way of mentally imagining
the world in your mind, not based on what your eyes tell you,
but rather what your other senses tell you like smell, like hearing, like touch. And the image in the mind
of a blind person is no less real or no less vivid
that it is for a sighted person. That’s the important thing to keep in mind because remember: behind eyes
that don’t see is a brain that does see, and a mind that thinks,
and a mind that dreams, and a heart full of courage that wants
to succeed and live independently, but at the same time feel
that they’re a part of a community, just like everybody else. I’m a practical person, I don’t think we’ll have a world
where nobody will have disabilities. But I do believe that if we continue
to develop the right tools, fundamentally change
our mentality, and understand that just because somebody has
a disability, it does not mean inability, maybe we won’t even have use
for the word “disabled” anymore. That’s the day I think
we’d all like to see. Thank you. (Applause)

20 Replies to “Blindness is just another way of seeing | Lotfi Merabet | TEDxCambridge

  1. If you look at the empty half of glass, people are blind. But if you look the other half, these people are capable of other skills more than everyone else. They only need to learn using this gift.

  2. I'm more afraid of losing my hearing than sight. Exposure to music in the worst times of my life, sound, music has been the most saving grace. blindness, maybe not having the imprint of the memories of sight, would spare me some of the pain. this video is very intriguing.

  3. I'm happy to watch this video. It's about me. I've got only one impaired eyesight since my birth, it have got worse overtime, it seems that I'm like Esref Armagan. But in fact, I'm now still working as a faculty staff at a university. I'm an accountant.

  4. I have lost a lot of hearing and in the future may go blind. After I lost 100% of hearing in my left year I got a Cochlear implant. It took my brain 12 months to remember how to hear. I have 95% hearing from the Cochlear now in that ear. It doesn't capture all the frequencies so it is still difficult to hear low pitched talking. Music does not sound as good but the important thing is to keep going out in the world so your brain doesn't go to mush!

  5. Hey! Im using the papers refered in this lecture as a reference for my PhD. Does anyone know where I can find gameplay samples of the videogames cited? AudioDoom or AbeS, either both, I would like to have an idea of how it feels to play them. Thank you!

  6. I was born premature in 1997 24 weeks 1 pound 6 ounces and I survived I am a miracle and Andrea bochelli is my musical influence

  7. Tanong mo sa lola mong magpaparaya kung sino ako!
    Araw gabi walang panty!

  8. Still would rather die. Everyone of my dreams would be impossible, everything I enjoy won’t be enjoyable, my want to be independent and alone will be impractical, and finding love will be hard and even if I do so, I’d be a burden and or unable to uphold the man role in the relationship.

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