Brain ‘rewires’ itself to enhance other senses in blind people – Harvard Medical School

“Our results demonstrate that the structural and functional neuroplastic brain changes occurring as a result of early ocular blindness may be more widespread than initially thought,” said lead author Corinna Bauer, HMS instructor of ophthalmology and a scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass. Eye and Ear. “We observed significant changes not only in the occipital cortex, where vision is processed, but also areas implicated in memory, language processing and sensory motor functions.”

The researchers used MRI multimodal brain imaging techniques to reveal these changes in a group of 12 subjects who were born with or acquired profound blindness by the age of three. They compared the scans to a group of 16 normally sighted subjects, who were of the same age range. On the scans of those with early blindness, the team observed structural and functional connectivity changes, including evidence of enhanced connections that send information back and forth between areas of the brain not observed in the normally sighted group.

These connections appear to be unique to those with profound blindness, suggesting that the brain “rewires” itself in the absence of visual information to boost other senses. This is possible through the process of neuroplasticity, or the ability of our brains to naturally adapt to our experiences.

7 comments on “Brain ‘rewires’ itself to enhance other senses in blind people – Harvard Medical School

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  1. A rhetorical quibble:

    In this context, “rewires” seems not quite the right metaphor. Not surprisingly, the abstract uses more scientific rather than metaphoric language. Since the paper examines the scans of very early onset blindness, it may be more a case of their brains developing differently rather than “rewiring” which suggests individual brains changed structurally.

    Such adaptability in development would be just as significant as any acquired changes in structure.

    • I guess the implication is that them brains is turning out differently than they might have been expected to turn out otherwise – the main takeaway being that the condition of blindness correlates with objectively measurable or detectable organic differences in brain structure, whatever terms you apply to them.

      I was interested by the article in part because I have frequently seen people asserting that the traditional claim regarding enhancement or alteration of other senses was a myth. Also interesting that changes in memory and language processing are also detected.

      Would of course also be interesting if other “re-wirings” were detected. When I was reading up on cognitive science or neuroscience years ago, it was my understanding that one of the premises undergirding them/it was that every change in mental or subjective state must correlate with an in theory detectable alteration in physical state – that every thought is also a thing or is thingy.

      • Absolutely. As I said, a quibble. But on reflection, the idea that brains can develop differently in an observable way as a result of a difference in the sensory field it processes is pretty breathtaking.

        For me, the word “rewiring” has a visceral immediacy that perhaps over emphasizes the “re” part of it. Still, I think science reporting too often is not as precise as it could be and still retain readability.

        Your last paragraph interests me… At this point in the proceedings, how can we think anything else?

        • You could take the position – and on reflection it would be a quite arguable position, if not necessarily a practical assumption to guide research – that the essence of thinking, what we ought to think of as thinking truly, must always finally evade detection, or must be that which detecting cannot detect, because it is already the detecting. So the business of cognitive science will be to strip away what is non-essential to thinking and confine it to the realm of mere things. The science as opposed to the philosophy of thinking would be a continually pushing away of its object by closing in on it – or an endless series of potentially interesting failures. So, like every other science, only especially so. Or: Since “science” could stand for “thought,” any science of science would be infinitely regressive meta-science, science of science of science of science ad infinitum. For the long version I’m afraid it would be back to Hegel or maybe to some of your Buddhist buddies.

          • Perhaps my Buddhst buddies’ long version can be condensed to a stanza.

            Augmenting the Dalai Lama’s famous (poorly paraphrased as)”if science contradicts anything Buddhism teaches we’ll have to revise it” he said something about science’s basic “ontological confusion”. That is describing how something works is not describing its essence – since essence does not exist.

            The essential Nagurjuna puts like this:

            Essence arising from
            Causes and conditions makes no sense.
            Essence arisen from causes and conditions
            Would be created.

            So if “we strip away the non-essential” fully, we are left with nothing.

            • Nagarjuna’s reasoning is correct, based on his presumptions.

              …if “we strip away the non-essential” fully, we are left with nothing.

              Or, more precisely, we are left with “no thing,” which would not be the same… thing… as absolute nullity.

              • I misquoted you with my “We strip away…” What I meant to refer to was your “So the business of cognitive science will be to strip away what is non-essential to thinking and confine it to the realm of mere things.” So as I understand you, thinking would be not a mere thing. But what is it? Your characterization of any characterization as an interesting failure is interesting.

                Nagarjuna goes on to distinguish essences as nullities versus things without essence that drive their “thingness” from their functionality, their place in the matrix of causes and conditions. This contains all the begged questions and paradoxes of mereology in general.

                So his solution is to argue that things are only things because of their functionality. That we can perceive them and how they function proves they are things. “Essence”, since it does not reside in the matrix of causes and conditions, does not function, so therefore does not exist.

                Nargajuna occupies a unique place in Buddhist thought. He is regarded as the person whom Buddha prophesied as the only person following him to really get it right. So, at least Mahayana-ites all have to assert they conform to his writings – with more of less success.

                So all this is probably way more response than is functional, but its been tough writing for quite a while now, and this just flowed to a greater extent than has been true. So I went with it. Hope you found it reasonably interesting.

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