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Monday, May 28, 2007

Sights and Sounds

In an earlier post about the SETI project, I pointed out that at the level of electro-chemical signals, there really isn't much difference between sight and hearing. Both translate data from the world around us into electric impulses. There is no reason to believe that an animal that tracks primarily by sound, like a bat for instance, "sees" the world differently than we do. They just translate the echoes into a three-dimensional map, similarly to the way our brain does with our eyes. Scientists have recently discovered that our own brains can be trained to map the world with sound.

When you identify an object's shape, a particular part of your brain called the LOtv "lights up". At first this area was thought to be purely visual, but several years ago Amir Amedi, now at Harvard Medical School, showed that touch could also activate it. Now Amedi and his team have shown that even "hearing" a shape can activate the area.

The research group built a device that measures a subject's ability to mentally model space using sound, and found that they could in fact improve a persons results. This explains the conventional wisdom that blind people have a heightened sense of hearing. I don't think there are any would-be Daredevils out there, but it's still pretty cool.

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