a blind boy using echolocation -- 11/14/18

Today's selection -- from Deviate by Beau Lotto. The resilience and creativity of the human brain:

"Ben Underwood was born in 1992 in Sacramento, California, with retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. The disease is most common in children and more often occurs just in one eye, but in Ben's case it was present in both. If not treated, it can spread quickly, so doctors had to remove first one of Ben's eyes, then the other. At just three years old he was left blind. His mother, Aquanetta Gordon, remembers vividly this heart-wrenching time, but says she knew he would be fine. She had been close to a blind boy growing up and seen how people over-helping him had disabled him further. 'Ben was going to experience his childhood,' she recalls, 'and whatever it took for him to be that kid, I wanted him to be that kid. I had complete confidence in him.' She made him practice jumping up and down steps and do other challenging spatial tasks that sometimes upset him. But sure enough, by age four Ben began to adapt ... by clicking.

"Using his tongue as a percussive instrument against the roof of his mouth, Ben clicked in his bedroom, in the living room, in the kitchen, even the bathroom. 'He would go into the bath­room and just listen,' Aqua says. 'To the sink, the trashcan, the shower curtain, everything.' She encouraged this, understand­ing that it was his new way of 'seeing' his world. '"Make the sound, baby," I told him. "No matter what you do, just make the sound." It would've been so unfair for me to tell him what he couldn't see because he didn't have eyes.'  Ben himself was likely too young to understand what he was doing -- which was simply the instinctive way his brain reacted to his newly sightless world. Through intuitive experimentation, he was learning to interpret the clicks that bounced back off of the world around him. He called his new sense his 'visual display.'

"Ben's clicking soon allowed him to sense his visual environ­ment as a kind of acoustic landscape, and by the time he entered kindergarten he was able to navigate with confidence (and pre­sumably a great deal of courage). He could differentiate a parked car from a parked truck, and once he even recognized a particu­lar neighbor by the sounds of her sandaled feet walking on the sidewalk five houses down the street.

"Of course, Ben's odd technique has existed in nature for millions of years: echolocation, the same highly evolved sonic nav­igation system bats use. Ben's way of seeing differently allowed him to transcend the loss of his sight and live like a normal boy.

"Remarkably, he rode his bike around his neighborhood, played basketball and tetherball, and even beat his brother at video games by learning the significance of the different sounds. There were challenges, not just in the light injuries he occasionally sus­tained, but in the minds of others. In contrast to his mother, his school administrators didn't want him to play on the monkey bars, and later on, his refusal to use a cane infuriated a school counselor. But he had already overcome blindness, so these were just small obstacles for him.

"Ben died at sixteen of his cancer, but he lived a life of enor­mous possibility and relative freedom to which we can aspire. He made tremendous layers of meaning out of meaningless information.

"Ben's story is a testament to human resilience and indeed inno­vation. His process of developing echolocation exemplifies how the brain innovates. Thus, from the perspective of neuroscience, his experience is not surprising (though it is exceptional)."

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Beau Lotto




Hachette Books


Copyright 2017 by Beau Lotto


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