Do you know that you can see using your tongue?
Sounds unbelievable right? But, that’s what Paul Bachyrita proved. He invented a device that enabled blind people to mimic vision using a device that could capture the video feed from a camera and transmit it to the brain using a thin white strip on the tongue.
But Bachyrita did not wake up one day with a eureka moment thinking, “I’m going to enable blind people to see.” Back in the 1960s, scientists believed that the brain operated with rigidity. Neuroscience was tied to the assumption that certain parts of the brain are explicitly responsible for specific functions and if a part was lost due to any damage or disability, the body could no longer perform the corresponding function.
For example, scientists assumed that if the section of the brain handling speech incurred damaged due to a car accident, the patient loses the ability to speak forever.
Paul Bachyrita, a neuroscientist, also believed that the brain was rigid, but he kept an open mind to new ideas.
Things changed in 1950 when Paul’s dad Pedro, a teacher suffered from a stroke. His condition was intense where Pedro was not only paralyzed but also lost his ability to speak. Doctors wrote him off and said that the connections between his spine and brain were severely damaged. They ruled out any possibility of recovery and mentioned that improvement if any, would only be minor. In short, they presumed that Pedro would function as a vegetable for the rest of his life.
These conclusions were based on the assumption that the brain was rigid and that Pedro’s brain had lost the connections required to walk and speak due to the stroke.
But Paul and his brother George decided to give it their all to try and fix their dad. So began their gruesome exercise of helping him recover his abilities. What made the challenge all the more arduous was that they had no proof that their methods would yield any results. In fact, neuroscience back then pointed the other way.
But, Paul and George started their regimen with their dad. They began with small activities. At first, they encouraged him to crawl on the floor. People were aghast to hear that the sons were making an old teacher scramble on all fours.
The concept of neuroplasticity, the hypothesis that a brain can rewire itself and learn to perform the same job using a different part was not only unknown but also frowned upon. All of psychology and neuroscience strongly believed that the brain had specific areas to perform a specific function. Any theory against the belief was refuted and laughed at.
But, Paul and George were relentless in their pursuit to help their father. After the crawling exercise, they made small progressive increments. They made him squeeze a ball with his functioning side and then the weaker side. They helped him sit, and walk. Though he struggled, slowly and steadily, Pedro started making progress and showing improvement.
Paul and George had to put in effort for an entire year, but their hard work yielded unbelievable results. Not only was their father able to sit, but he made an almost complete recovery. Not only was he able to walk and talk, but he was also able to go back to his teaching career and resume a normal life.
The experience on one end brought Paul Bachyrita delight as a son, but on the other, piqued his curiosity as a neuroscientist. If the connections in his father’s brains were destroyed after the stroke, how did he recover? For the recovery they had witnessed, one of the two things must have occurred:
- The damaged parts grew back and restored the connections
- The brain learned a new way of making connections
Though brain scans back then weren’t as sophisticated and detailed as they are today, they revealed that despite Pedro’s recovery, the damaged parts of his brain had remained unchanged physically during the whole 1 year of the improvement exercise. So, the assumption that the damaged parts grew again was ruled out.
It was clear that Pedro’s brain had figured out a new way to process the information back and forth between the body to the brain. That’s when Paul wondered “Is each part of the brain was really designated to perform a specific function or could the neural pathways rearrange themselves?”
Was his dad having a hard time crawling because his brain was making new neural connections to relearn how to perform the task? Was Pedro an exception to the norm and possibly one of the few people who could recover from a stroke?
Despite the hazy scenario and a plethora of questions, it led to one important roadmap in neuroscience – it sparked a thought that the brain might have the ability to rearrange and relearn.
Paul Bachyrita went on to become a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity of the brain and dedicated his entire life to the subject. He made two significant inventions which back in time looked like ideas straight out of a science fiction movie.
Enabling blind people to “see”:
Firstly, the device that Bachyrita invented doesn’t exactly enable blind people to see, but rather creates a feeling of seeing. He argued that vision occurs due to the brain and that eyes were only a minor part of the whole process.
Confused? So was I when I read it the first time.
Here is how the original version worked: A blind person was asked to sit on a chair connected to a sophisticated setup. Right in front of him was a camera pointed straight at a video feed. The camera would capture what it saw, process the feed, and convert them into low-resolution images. These images were processed through a chair of vibrating plates, converted into a signal, and transmitted to the human body via a thin strip of electrodes(like a Wrigley’s gum) placed on the tongue of the person.
Every time the camera processed an image, the blind person felt a tingling sensation of the transmission on the tongue. Bachyrita hypothesized that the brain was capable of reading the signals of vision even if they came from a camera and landed on the tongue.
Why did Bachyrita choose the tongue instead of any other body part? He had three reasons:
- The saliva assisted conductivity
- The lack of skin on the tongue made it easier to stimulate reception
- The tongue has a higher density of nerve endings making the transmission easier to propagate
Curious to know what the results were? The experiment was successful and the blind people were able to “see”. They managed to identify objects and shapes displayed on the camera.
They weren’t exactly seeing per se but were able to perceive the world around them. If a ball was thrown towards the camera, the blind person would duck by instinct. The brain was picking up the feed from the camera via the tongue. This implied that the eyes aren’t the only organs capable of capturing the vision and transmitting it to the brain. Any other device with similar ability could send a similar signal and the brain would learn to read it. Fascinating, right?
The sophisticated device called Brainport evolved over the years and now looks like elegant sunglasses that a superhero from Marvel would wear.
Enabling wobblers to manage balance:
Bachyrita performed a second experiment which facilitated the brain to make a sensory substitution.
In the field of medicine, wobblers are people with a medical condition who cannot hold their standing position. They either fail completely or go off balance at random.
To understand Bachyrita’s invention, you must know the science behind body balance. Your body holds your posture and balance using canals and little hairy structures present within your ears. Standing up seems effortless to you, but your ear and brain are performing various processes to help you remain upright. Every time you tilt to one side or bend your head backward, the hairy things in your ears touch one of the canals and transmit the signal to your brain, which determines your posture and degree of the bend and commands your body to adjust accordingly.
If any part of the system fails to operate, you’d have a frustrating daily life. You’d no longer be able to stand or sit, stretch after your workout or run behind the bus when you’re late.
Wobblers struggle with balance when the little parts within their ear undergo damage due to accidents, wrong medication, physical injury, etc.
We take our posture for granted, but in the book, The Brain That Changes Itself, the author speaks about a lady Cheryl, a woman in her 40s, who couldn’t stand straight without holding on to a wall, table, or a chair for support. Even when she was standing, she felt like she was perpetually falling. And guess how long she faced the horrendous experience?
For 5 years. Yes, that’s right. For five full years, she felt she was falling into an endless pit that had no sold surface at the bottom.
Bachyrita used the same concept to treat Cheryl. He invented a device like the one which helped blind people see except that it used accelerometers instead of cameras. Whenever the wobbler moved, the equipment detected their movement, converted it into signals, and transmitted it using a thin electrode, placed on the tongue.
The accelerometer detected the current body position which the damaged ear canal couldn’t. But this time, the correction wasn’t a sensation, but a genuine fix where the wobbler could maintain balance.
The device used a different form of training. For Brainport, the blind person had to wear it at all times. The device for wobblers, however, required occasional usage to help the brain learn how to balance itself.
When Bachyrita tried the device on Cherly the first time for a few seconds, her balance returned to normal for a few minutes. She had never experienced normalcy with her body for five years, and those few moments were enough to bring her to tears of joy.
But the effect was short-lived and her sensation of perpetually falling returned soon after.
But thankfully, the time spent training on the device yielded exponential returns. The next time, when Cheryl wore the device for a few minutes, she was able to operate like a normal person for a few days. During subsequent training, a long session of 2 hours helped her retain full balance for 3 months.
The device was feasible for use because spending a couple of hours every quarter was no big ask for a wobbler. They were happy to spend more time if they had to in exchange to stand straight.
What should you take away from Bachyrita’s story?
Firstly, Bachyrita’s sheer determination to explore an area widely refuted by the field of science deserves a standing applause. Though he is among the lesser-known inventors, without his effort, our understanding of the brain may not have been as advanced as it is today.
But more importantly, Bachyrita showed the world that the human brain is neuroplastic and can rearrange, relearn, and readjust to circumstances with repetition. If the brain has the ability to create a sensation of vision without a pair of eyes, or maintain body balance using the signal sent from an accelerometer, imagine how powerful it is. You’re roaming around with a device that is far more powerful than any supercomputer mankind has ever produced. And it resides within you.
So, if you’re willing to put in upfront hard work and create those neural connections, you have the potential to rewire your brain.
Take a moment to recall some of the excuses you make when you face a challenge or a difficult task:
- I don’t have the ability to learn anymore
- I don’t have the skills to do that
- I’m not good enough
- I’m too old for this
- This is too difficult for me
Sure, some of the scenarios are genuine where physical attributes or ability limit the level you can reach. For example, if you’re 5 feet 5, and want to become a pro basketball player, the odds are against you.
But for other scenarios, your inability to succeed at a task stems from your mindset, not your inherent abilities. You come up with excuses to not try and your brain believes them. For example, if you’re 40, and you assume you’re too old to learn new stuff because you haven’t picked up a book since college, you’re gravely mistaken. Your brain has the ability to digest sophisticated information and you make up reasons because being lazy and taking the easier path is more comfortable than putting in the effort.
So, next time you’re making an excuse or being lazy or slipping into the comfort zone, ask yourself, “Am I trying hard enough?”
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Reprint ed.) [E-book]. Penguin Books.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, August 23). Paul Bach-y-Rita. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bach-y-Rita.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.