“Invisibilia,” the new podcast from creators of “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” recently explored a story about blindness, called “Batman,” in which a blind man inadvertently becomes a champion of the blind. Daniel Kish learned to get around by making clicking sounds with his mouth to create a mind picture of his environment. He can even ride a bicycle. Most blind people, however, are not encouraged to click to explore their surroundings and are instead helped too much, Kish would argue, in part because we live in a litigious society that wants to prevent injury.
Blind people are often discouraged from clicking because it makes the sighted uncomfortable. But a study of Kish’s brain shows the parts that register vision light up when things are waved in front of him. Please forgive my layperson’s description. The point is Kish, through training, has a certain type of vision that any blind person’s brain could develop, according to experts on the show. It “looks” similar to our peripheral vision. The brain responds to learning where things are through sound and the more a person learns this the more he or she can “see,” if you will, in what sounds very much like the mind’s eye. This is why Kish can ride a bike. It’s no party trick.
The show goes on to discuss how hard it is to give blind people this training because it requires allowing children to run into poles and the like. Our first instinct is always going to be to pull a blind loved one back from a busy street, even if he or she can hear it. Love makes us reach out to help and, as such, love is the very thing that can also shackle a person to a life of needing assistance. If we don’t give people a chance to fail, and all that, they might not succeed to the furthest degree of their potential.
I’m the first person to admit a desire to control in order to protect. This story makes me want to be better about that. Let my loved ones develop their own senses instead of pulling them back from the brink. Let them run into poles. It’s hard, though. But the other piece of the big picture to which this story points is that we are so very adaptable. It’s a total cliche at this point to say we only use a fraction of our brains. But when you hear a story like this, about a blind man riding a bicycle, it makes you wonder just how much of our brains we could use if we, ahem, put our minds to it. In what ways might we be able to expand by learning more? Maybe this is why the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Our brains would love something new.
So one of our challenges is how can we expand? And how can we let go to let others expand as well? I’m pretty sure we can surprise the hell out of ourselves. Let’s take it past the end of our noses, the end of our streets, the end of our belief systems.
Jenn Sutkowski is going off-road to explore this more. OK, maybe not literally off-road. Baby steps to big thinking.
This Full Frontal column appeared originally in the Newport Mercury.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
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