Alternative pathways to the primary visual cortex

impeached kingHe turned around and looked in my direction, his dark glasses reflecting the library lights like distant stars. Then he smiled. Automatically I smiled back at him, but then I remembered that he was blind, and my smile froze. I was frantically searching to find an appropriate opening sentence in my vacant mind. He held his smile still as he was addressing me. “I think we have a mutual friend, Ms. Clarice,” he said kindly, not commenting on my rude behavior. I was now searching for his eyes behind the dark shades and instead encountered my own mirror image, small like a doll. “I am sorry,” I finally stammered, addressing the little doll more than the man, “I am really sorry, but how do you know who I am?” I was still being rude, I realized. The small person reflected in the distant mirror of his glasses I had taken for my own reflection made an unexpected move that startled me even more if that was possible. She took a mocking bow towards me and disappeared into one of the bright reflections of the lights above. “Things are not what they seem, Ms.” responded the old man, why don’t we sit down somewhere so you can ask your questions. My name is Dr. Aaron Hausner. And who might you be?”

Dr. Hausner dedicated a long time to me. He was soft-spoken and had an uncanny ability to predict my next question – yet, at the same time he did not once directly answer any one of my articulated questions. After we had occupied a spot in a somewhat secluded corner of the library – he had been leading the way without ever hesitating – he had again turned directly towards me and had started speaking with a soft voice. “The route from eye through the primary visual cortex the is not the only visual pathway into the cortex. Other pathways exist that bypass the primary visual cortex. A blind man like me can learn to trust those pathways though they do not stimulate a sense of optical vision. I do know whether there is an object in my way, approximately which size it occupies and whether it is mobile or fixed in place, of organic or inorganic nature. I also know whether a person directly faces me or wether I face a person and whether this person smiles at me. Scientifically this phenomenon is called blindsight.“ I felt like a fool. He answered. “Don’t feel bad, most people feel inhibited when they first address an apparently blind person. And to be honest, not all blind people know about this phenomenon either, though most blind people I have talked to could relate experiences that strongly point towards their ability to process some visual information even though not in the way they expect.” I was stunned. We were silent for a moment. Finally I found my voice: “My mother is an artist. She draws objects as an intricate net of lines, and though the object is not directly represented through these lines, with a bit of patience one can usually tell what the drawing is about. I mean, you can see the object though you clearly can’t.” I drew a deep breath. Dr. Hausner seemed to listen but he didn’t come up with a typical grown-up response like: How interesting of you to point out the similarities between an artist’s perception and a blind person’s perception.

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