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Tongue sees

Tongue sees

Visual aids come in all shapes and sizes. Many of us routinely wear spectacles; some of us require a guide dog. But what if you could see using your tongue? It sounds like science fiction, but a device in the US called BrainPort does just that.

What our eyes perceive is couriered by about two million nerves to a depot in the back of our heads, the brain’s so-called visual cortex, where the messages are decoded and transformed into sight. The BrainPort works with the help of a small camera that sits on a pair of sunglasses worn by the blind person to gather visual information. Next, the information is then sent to a computer device and then on to what looks like an electronic lollipop. The person pops this lollipop inside their mouth and lets it rest on their tongue. The lollipop receives electrical pulses from the camera and these are felt as bursting champagne bubbles by the tongue. But these pulses are picked up by the nerves of the tongue and sent off to the brain for decoding.

This is where the plastic brain comes into its own. Remarkably the brain can teach itself to decode these messages and allow the person see them. Researcher Dr William Seiple at an organization called Lighthouse International has been testing the device and working with blind people. One person is Nihal, a 26-year-old avid runner and swimmer who lost her sight to glaucoma at the age of seven. She recognised shapes the first day she tried the lollipop, but with practice she could read 4-inch high letters – while blindfolded.

This would not be possible if it were not for our brain’s remarkable ability to remain flexible throughout life; if new information comes to it, it will bend itself over backwards to fit it in. In an article describing the new technology in the magazine Scientific American, scientists expressed amazement at what the device can achieve. “One guy started to cry when he saw his first letter,” Seiple recalled. The technology is amazing, but so too is our brain’s capacity to change. This is something we can all take advantage of; challenge your brain daily by stepping just outside your comfort zone,  and your brain will up its game in meeting those challenges. Try it. Illustration: Neuroplasticity

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