The phenomenon of phantom limbs reveals how our brains can delude us into being conscious of something that isn't there. But Ramachandran has come across an even stranger condition, a remarkable ability of the brain that allows you to see even though you are totally blind. This rare condition is called "blindsight. Ramachandran found Graham Young in Oxford, England.
He is one of the world's few known blindsight patients.
This paradoxical condition shows just how much our brains run our lives without our being aware of it. I literally used to walk into lamp posts. I ran into, you know, these huge great pillars you get in stations? I ran into one of those one day. Graham's vision was devastated by the accident. Today, he can see to the left but is blind to everything on the right, in both eyes.
Coming Apart: Trauma and the Fragmentation of the Self
He cannot perceive it consciously. You tell me when it appears It's shocking. I think it's shocking because it brings home the fact that we can actually manage our brains without consciousness to some extent and that leads to the question, "Well then What is the extra gloss that consciousness gives, if anything, to our actions? I'm aware of individual functions of sight. Sometimes I am aware of a motion, but that motion has no shape, no color, no depth, no form, no contrast.
Sometimes I can tell you what orientation it's at, but then we lose everything else. Well "blindsight" is this term introduced by Larry Weiskrantz to describe the ability of people like Graham to detect things, but not to be aware of them—so very, very different from what we would normally call vision. COLIN BLAKEMORE: If there's one thing that this phenomenon of blindsight teaches us, it is that vision is not entirely seeing, that there can be a disconnection from the capacity to respond to visual information and the actual act of being visually aware of something.
Those two things can be separated and probably are in our everyday lives. But the problem is that, obviously, we're not aware of the things that we're not aware of. We just don't know the extent to which they play a part. He can see and yet cannot see. So it's a paradox, it's almost like science fiction. How is this possible?
Well, if you look at the anatomy, you can begin to explain this curious syndrome. It turns out from the eyeball to the higher centers of the brain where you interpret the visual image, there's not just one pathway. There are two separate pathways, which subserve different aspects of vision. One of these pathways is the evolutionarily new pathway, the more sophisticated pathway, if you like, that goes from the eyeball through the thalamus to the visual cortex of the brain. Now, you need the visual cortex for consciously seeing something. The other pathway, which is older evolutionarily, and is more prominent in animals like rodents, lower mammals, birds and reptiles, goes to the brain stem, the stalk on which the brain sits.
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And, from the brain stem, gets relayed eventually to the higher centers of the brain. Specifically, the older pathway going through the brain stem is concerned with reflexive behavior orienting to something important in the visual field, making eye movements, directing your gaze, directing your head toward something important. In these patients, one of these pathways alone is damaged—the visual cortex is damaged. Because that's gone, the patient doesn't see anything consciously.
But the other pathway is still intact. And he can use that pathway to guess correctly the direction of movement of an object that he cannot see. It doesn't have to recognize a fly. It just has to be aware of something moving. So I suppose me and the lizard are distant cousins. And surely this fascinating syndrome is going to help us understand not only the nature of seeing, not only the division of labor between these different pathways, but the question of, "What is consciousness?
What does it mean to be consciously aware of something? Why is one pathway alone conscious but does the other pathway behave like a zombie that's trapped inside him, that's unconscious? The syndrome is so strange that when it was initially reported people didn't believe it, and there are some people who still don't believe it. But in a sense it's not that strange if you think about it, because in a sense we experience blindsight all the time in our daily lives.
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For example, as I am driving this car and having this conversation, all my attention is on the conversation And, in fact, I'm not conscious of what's going on around me even though I'm negotiating all this traffic, avoiding obstacles, avoiding that car on my right, avoiding the car on my left. That's all being done in parallel by another part of my brain and it never emerges into conscious awareness unless something very strange happens like a big truck passes by and I might notice it. Without this zombie in our brains, we'd be swamped by visual information, unable to focus on what really matters.
One whole side of the star is missing. Peggy has a condition called "visual neglect. Ten years ago, Peggy suffered a stroke in the parietal lobes of her brain.
When the right parietal is damaged the patient is unable to deal with the left side of the world. NARRATOR: This condition has fascinated neurologists for more than a century, because it reveals not only how the brain shapes the way we perceive space in the present, it even determines the spatial look of our memories. This became apparent when Peggy was asked to draw a daisy from memory. If someone comes in on my left-hand side now, or I hear a sound, my eyes will immediately move to the left-hand side.
That makes me, for evolutionary purposes, very aware of my environment, because if I wasn't aware of those things, I'd have accidents. I'd get hurt or I might get eaten by wild animals and whatever. Now in Peggy's case, she will not attend to those things that we would normally be aware of. And look at this one. This is a very good example. It takes everything away, you see.
It's attention really.
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It's taken away. There must be two attentions somewhere in your body that one side's taking the other one away. I can't make it out at all—very odd. NARRATOR: Peggy's one-sided daisies graphically reveal how damage to the visual centers can warp our consciousness of the world and how complex the human visual system actually is. But since then we've learned, in fact, there is not just one. There are thirty areas in the brain concerned just with seeing. One area for seeing colors, another area for seeing movement, or form and shape, relative distance and depth. Now, despite this staggering complexity of all these different areas, there seems to be a simple overall pattern of organization.
In fact, the visual input, as it comes in, seems to divide into two parallel streams of processing. There is one pathway which we call the "how" pathway, to which some of these areas belong. And that "how" pathway seems to be concerned mainly with navigation—with being able to walk around The other pathway, the "what" pathway, leads from the main visual areas to the temporal lobes located just behind our temples.
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He could read a newspaper. Everything seemed fine except he had one profound delusion. He would look at his mother and he would say, "This woman, Doctor, she looks exactly like my mother but in fact she's not my mother. She's an imposter.
Coming Apart: Trauma and the Fragmentation of the Self | Dana Foundation
She's some other woman pretending to be my mother. I like that lady very much.
He's so much like you, but he drives better. He doesn't go so fast. Did it look like there's some other person who resembles your father who's not really your father? Something like that?