December 26, 2008
BehindTheMedspeak: Explaining Tommy — Blindsight Unmasked
A remarkable report published this past Monday in the journal Current Biology documents as never before the phenomenon "... of so-called blindsight, the native ability to sense things using the brain's subcortical — and entirely subconscious — visual system," wrote Benedict Carey in an article in this past Tuesday's New York Times Science section.
The graphic above, captioned "A patient whose visual lobes in the brain were destroyed was able to navigate an obstacle course and recognize fearful faces subconsciously," led the Times piece, which follows.
- Blind, Yet Seeing: The Brain’s Subconscious Visual Sense
The man, a doctor left blind by two successive strokes, refused to take part in the experiment. He could not see anything, he said, and had no interest in navigating an obstacle course — a cluttered hallway — for the benefit of science. Why bother?
When he finally tried it, though, something remarkable happened. He zigzagged down the hall, sidestepping a garbage can, a tripod, a stack of paper and several boxes as if he could see everything clearly. A researcher shadowed him in case he stumbled.
“You just had to see it to believe it,” said Beatrice de Gelder, a neuroscientist at Harvard and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who with an international team of brain researchers reported on the patient on Monday in the journal Current Biology.
The study, which included extensive brain imaging, is the most dramatic demonstration to date of so-called blindsight, the native ability to sense things using the brain’s primitive, subcortical — and entirely subconscious — visual system.
Scientists have previously reported cases of blindsight in people with partial damage to their visual lobes. The new report is the first to show it in a person whose visual lobes — one in each hemisphere, under the skull at the back of the head — were completely destroyed. The finding suggests that people with similar injuries may be able to recover some crude visual sense with practice.
“It’s a very rigorously done report and the first demonstration of this in someone with apparent total absence of a striate cortex, the visual processing region,” said Dr. Richard Held, an emeritus professor of cognitive and brain science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who with Ernst Pöppel and Douglas Frost wrote the first published account of blindsight in a person, in 1973.
The man in the new study, an African living in Switzerland at the time, suffered the two strokes in his 50s, weeks apart, and was profoundly blind by any of the usual measures. Unlike people suffering from eye injuries, or congenital blindness in which the visual system develops abnormally, his brain was otherwise healthy, as were his eyes, so he had the necessary tools to process subconscious vision. What he lacked were the circuits that cobble together a clear, conscious picture.
The research team took brain scans and magnetic resonance images to see the damage, finding no evidence of visual activity in the cortex. They also found no evidence that the patient was navigating by echolocation, the way that bats do. Both the patient, T. N., and the researcher shadowing him walked the course in silence.
The man himself was as dumbfounded as anyone that he was able to navigate the obstacle course.
“The more educated people are,” Dr. de Gelder said, “in my experience, the less likely they are to believe they have these resources that they are not aware of to avoid obstacles. And this was a very educated person.”
Scientists have long known that the brain digests what comes through the eyes using two sets of circuits. Cells in the retina project not only to the visual cortex — the destroyed regions in this man — but also to subcortical areas, which in T. N. were intact. These include the superior colliculus, which is crucial in eye movements and may have other sensory functions; and, probably, circuits running through the amygdala, which registers emotion.
In an earlier experiment, one of the authors of the new paper, Dr. Alan Pegna of Geneva University Hospitals, found that the same African doctor had emotional blindsight. When presented with images of fearful faces, he cringed subconsciously in the same way that almost everyone does, even though he could not consciously see the faces. The subcortical, primitive visual system apparently registers not only solid objects but also strong social signals.
Dr. Held, the M.I.T. neuroscientist, said that in lower mammals these midbrain systems appeared to play a much larger role in perception. In a study of rats published in the journal Science last Friday, researchers demonstrated that cells deep in the brain were in fact specialized to register certain qualities of the environment.
They include place cells, which fire when an animal passes a certain landmark, and head-direction cells, which track which way the face is pointing. But the new study also found strong evidence of what the scientists, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, called “border cells,” which fire when an animal is close to a wall or boundary of some kind.
All of these types of neurons, which exist in some form in humans, may too have assisted T. N. in his navigation of the obstacle course.
In time, and with practice, people with brain injuries may learn to lean more heavily on such subconscious or semiconscious systems, and perhaps even begin to construct some conscious vision from them.
“It’s not clear how sharp it would be,” Dr. Held said. “Probably a vague, low-resolution spatial sense. But it might allow them to move around more independently.”
You can watch a video of the blind individual navigating a complex maze here.
The abstract of the Current Biology paper follows.
- Intact navigation skills after bilateral loss of striate cortex
A patient with bilateral damage to primary visual (striated) cortex has provided the opportunity to assess just what visual capacities are possible in the absence of geniculo-striate pathways. Patient TN suffered two strokes in succession, lesioning each visual cortex in turn and causing clinical blindness over his whole visual field. Functional and anatomical brain imaging assessments showed that TN completely lacks any functional visual cortex. We report here that, among other retained abilities, he can successfully navigate down the extent of a long corridor in which various barriers were placed. A video recording shows him skillfully avoiding and turning around the blockages. This demonstrates that extra-striate pathways in humans can sustain sophisticated visuo-spatial skills in the absence of perceptual awareness, akin to what has been previously reported in monkeys. It remains to be determined which of the several extra-striate pathways account for TN's intact navigation skills.
Kim the Talking Clock
Designed by David Dear.
Kim the Talking Clock
Literally "tells" the time.
Push her nose and her eyes light up as she reports the time in a quintessential robotic voice.
Set the alarm and wake up to the sound of a rooster crowing.
Requires 3AA batteries (not included).
Aluminum face, copper hair.
6"Ø x 1.75"H.
Seems kinda scary first thing in the morning, what?
Don't take my word for it: listen to it here.
Helpful Hints from joeeze: Make your own snow-and-ice trail running shoes
In the January 2009 issue of Runner's World, Matt Carpenter — nine-time winner of the Pike's Peak Marathon as well as course record holder — tells how you can make your trail shoes snow-and-ice capable using a drill and some sheet metal screws for "... less than a buck."
Why spend serious money on Yaktrax and their ilk when for pennies on the dollar you can make a much hardier version in the comfort of your own home?
Here's what he had to say.
- Surefooted: Screw Your Shoes to Tackle Snowy Roads and Icy Trails
When a blizzard hit Manitou Springs, Colorado, on August 16 — the day before the Pikes Peak Marathon — I pulled out my cordless drill and transformed my trail shoes into "screw shoes." Good thing, too. Hail and snow fell, and the top of the 14,000-foot peak, which runners climb, was covered with ice. My special footwear kept me from slipping, which helped me win the race. Inserting screws into the outsole of your shoe increases traction. During the winter, I designate a pair of trainers as my screw shoes so they're always ready to go. The process is quick, easy, and costs less than a buck.
Materials: Buy sheet-metal screws (available at hardware stores); their heads have a lip that grips ice well. Half-inch screws are usually best because they are long enough to stay secure without piercing the insole. If those seem too long for your shoe, use a 3/8" screw.
Instructions: Insert 10 to 15 screws directly into the raised treads of the shoe. Space them out. If your midsole is made of air or gel, keep the screws along the outside edge of the outsole. A cordless drill with a 1/4" socket can do the job in less than a minute. Don't overtighten: You should stop when the head of the screw touches the rubber outsole of the shoe.
Tuttuki Bako Virtual Finger Game
Don't ask me, I just work here.
Long story short: "Stick your finger in the hole on the side and see a virtual version on the LCD screen."
From the website:
- Tuttuki Bako Virtual Finger Game
Finger Doppelganger Arrives from Japan
Here at ThinkGeek we've seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion but never have we encountered anything quite like the Tuttuki Bako Virtual Finger Game.
When we caught sight of this wacky electronic game on Japanese blogs, we figured it must be a joke... but no — it's 100% real and fantastically crazy.
Simply stick your finger in the hole and a virtual representation appears on the screen.
Then you can use your virtual finger to play all kinds of cool mini games... from swinging a panda to having a karate fight with a tiny little man.
It's so odd yet so wonderful.
Domo arigato Japan!
This item is imported from Japan. All the instructions are in Japanese. However, the game itself has no Japanese text. It's easy enough to figure out how to play... but we're just informing you. To select the game, you need to push the button on the front to get to the menu. Then stick your finger in to hit the "+" key until you see the game you want. Then poke the picture of the game with your finger. Withdraw your finger and the game starts. Gotcha?
• Electronic game allows you to play games with a virtual finger which mimics the movement of your own finger
• Stick your finger in the hole on the side and see a virtual version on the LCD screen
• Requires 3 AAA Batteries (not included)
• 8 x 7.5 x 5.5 cm (3" x 3" x 2")
• Five built-in mini games
• Imported from Japan
• Clock with alarm
How long can you hold your breath?
Ready... Set... Go!
Desktop Earbud Speakers
From the website:
- Desktop Earbud Speakers
Sometimes bigger IS better — especially when it comes to sound.
That's why we took a puny pair of earbuds, put them in our highly technical Way Big machine and created 500XL — it's 500 times the size of the original.
And how great will these look on your desktop alongside your MP3 player or PC?
These speakers include a built-in amp and they're powered by either batteries, USB (included), or a standard wall plug power supply (not included).
Speakers measure 7" long x 4" in diameter.
3 Watt power rating.
Idiots — Meet Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker
Long story short: Both Dutch, they're artists whose multidisciplinary sculptures blur design, craft and storytelling and employ whatever's at hand, no matter how bizarre or seemingly inappropriate.
I like that.
The Financial Times piece follows.
- The stuff of dreams and magic
Afike Golstein and Floris Bakker are happy if you call them Idiots. It is the name of their creative partnership, taken from a cartoon character who appealed to their irreverent sense of humour.
Otherwise, the couple — also partners in life — dislike being labelled. "We never make a product. We are not commercial," Bakker rem-arks. But they reluctantly admit: "we have a good nose for trends and providing inspiration for others; our goal is to remain timeless".
Their multi-disciplinary sculptural pieces, a blur between design and craft, go way beyond the most radical boundaries of the newly coined "designart".
Golstein refers to herself as "the one with the crazy ideas" while Bakker is "the smart one". As inventors and creators, they are breaking new ground, pooling and sharing combined skills and talents such as embroidery, ceramics, jewellerymaking, glassmaking and ironmongery. She explains: "Our theme is nature, technology and capitalism and the big issue for designers such as ourselves is how to remain authentic and, at the same time, survive." Taxidermy is central in their creations — a way of visually expressing their real and imaginary worlds through three-dimensional story-telling.
The couple met when they were 18 at their graduation ceremony from the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. For such an unconventional pair, Golstein's description of how their eyes met "and it was love at first sight" is charmingly old-fashioned. It was the late 1990s. "That was when the whole adventure started," she says.
Bakker grew up in Amstel, a small village near Amsterdam, where his father still runs a print shop and his brother is an art therapist working with autistic adults. Golstein was raised by her single mother in the seamier part of Amsterdam. It was a tough life as they had no home of their own and moved from place to place, squatting in other people's houses. What most children regarded as hobbies (making up stories and caring for animals), she now believes "was a way of showing reality in my somewhat surreal existence. The question of reality is one that I will work with for a long time".
The couple dream of buying a farm one day; in the meantime Bakker makes the iron constructions integral to their work at the forge he built on a dairy farm in Ouderkerk, just outside Amsterdam.
Now in their mid-30s, Golstein and Bakker have an endless stream of new ideas and directions for their work. Post-degree studies (some taken at night classes) that include photography, theatre design, jewellerymaking, fashion, and, in Bakker's case, business administration have spanned several years.
Friends support their artistic ambitions and strange requirements. When, for example, a cat belonging to a friend recently died he took the corpse to Golstein and Bakker to store in their deep freeze before taking it to their taxidermist. They play with visual ideas and possibilities much as a set designer might do. Mummified creatures take centre stage in their creations in spite of the bureaucratic challenges they face. Dead birds found in fields or on the streets have to be taken to the police, forms have to be filled in verifying the date and location they were found, and a signed letter of authorisation must be presented to the taxidermist before he is permitted to commence his work.
In 2003 the couple started making large-scale sculptural pieces, which they put on their website and sold themselves rather than going through galleries. It was a risky decision but they felt they need- ed to take control of what they did and also that galleries might not respect the fragility of their work.
Interior designers from all over Europe offered them commissions. "Ophelia", a lioness with gilded nuggets of handmade ceramics — fabricated at the European Ceramic Workshop — oozing from its body, was bought for €40,000 by the National Museum of Oslo.
"It was a start," they say, and the money enabled them to make their next large piece, "Corpse Bride", an iron construction comprising a stuffed vulture adorned with pearls and embroidered textiles. They regard the money they make as a means to financing the next ambitious project, such as "This Seat", in which a peacock wearing an embroidered silk skirt nonchalantly sweeps the floor from the arm of a high-backed tapestry chair. Now in a private collection in Kuwait, the piece might start a new trend for decadent decorative arts.
Bakker says that they would like to do more public works but, at the moment, these are still dreams: "We need more space and more money. But we carry on. Our inspiration is life, friends and what we see going on around us."
In a era where minimalism is the cool face of interior design, Golstein and Bakker are modern day Salvador Dalís and Merit Oppenheims, bravely creating a material, disturbing world and luring us in to share its magic.
What is it?
Answer here this time tomorrow.