How to Perceive Without Sight

Ann Whitman
March 11, 2017

How is it that we construct our reality? What is it we think we know, and what do we actually know? These are questions that led Columbia University neuroscientist Jacqueline Gottlieb to a career studying attention, decision-making, and curiosity. And at Saturday’s Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, we learned how these questions were addressed by someone who lost his sight at age 25.

At “How to Perceive Without Sight,” Gottlieb spoke with entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina, at age 12. Prior to losing his vision, he already had achieved status as a child actor, lawyer, Supreme Court clerk, and a successful business owner. But when he lost his sight in early adulthood, he had to overcome depression and learn to shift his attention to his remaining senses to navigate the world around him.

Isaac Lidsky, photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

“It was an eye-opening process,” quipped Lidsky, who came to realize that his other senses provided him with “phenomenal” information. Rather than passively observing the world through sight as before, he now had to make a conscious effort to pay more attention to that other information.

“I don’t hear better, but I do listen better,” he said.

The truth of the matter is that there is more information coming through our senses than we could ever hope to process, said Gottlieb. Instead we are forced to select what we pick up from the environment based on the primary goals of human nature: survival and reproduction, she explained.

On a fundamental level, this is automatic in the brain, she said. People look for patterns and cues, corroborated by multiple senses and agreed upon by multiple people. The resulting representation of reality is useful for survival. For example, driving or even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich are accomplished by learning a routine of sampling information.

Jacqueline Gottlieb, photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

But going back to Lidsky’s experience, can we consciously decide what to pay attention to?

Yes, said Gottlieb. People have filters, and need to train the brain to focus on the task at hand, almost like training a muscle.

When Lidsky lost his sight, he shifted his attention to hearing as his dominant sense, improving his listening speed in the process. But ultimately, he said that the way he perceives the world is not so different from seeing it; he aggregates a continuous collection of details and then builds a conceptual understanding of what’s around him.

Sight or no sight, it is fascinating to consider that due to personal differences, we all have a distinctive vision of the world around us. Factors such as expectations, inference, moods, and emotions contribute to perception, said Gottlieb. Lidsky experienced first-hand how debilitating fear could be to inhibit learning and attention, saying that when faced with blindness he “knew his life was over.” Yet now at age 37, he calls his blindness “a blessing,” which forced him to be brutally honest with himself about his idea of success and values–something he details in his new book Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly. You can also watch his short TED talk from 2016, viewed more than two million times.

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives partnered with the Rubin Museum of Art to present this event as part of Brain Awareness Week.