BRAIN MATTERS: More than meets the eye

A few days back, I was watching 2002 hit Bollywood movie ‘Aankhen’ a heist crime thriller. The film tells the story of Vijay Singh Rajput (Amitabh Bachchan) engaging three blind men to rob a bank, where he was previously employed.

The film's plot was very exciting and compelling, with meticulous training given to three blind men to rob a bank in broad daylight and they, in fact, succeed in doing so, flawlessly. As the movie ended, a thought crossed my mind as to whether these three blind men would have been able to rob the bank in a broad daylight, if they had gained their eyesight before the heist.

My initial thought was ‘yes it would have been easier for them to rob a bank if they had regained their vision’. But, I was wrong. As per David Eagleman- American writer and neuroscientist, teaching at Stanford University in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences, it is not at all easy for a blind man who has regained his vision to navigate the world with confidence. To prove his point, he gives us the case of Mike May, who had lost his eyesight at the age of three and regained it at the age of 46 in the year 2000.

Mike had lost his sight at the age of three due a chemical explosion which damaged his corneas. His blindness did not hinder his life much, he became successful as a businessman and a Paralympic skier. In 2000, he decided to undergo stem cell treatment for his damaged corneas. The operation was successful, and he regained his vision(partially). With this he faced a new set of challenges, for 40 long years he navigated the external world with the help of his memory or senses (touch, smell, or hearing), but now all of sudden his brain was flooded with visual information, which he found it to be very shocking.  When he was blind, his senses and memory helped his brain to make sense of the information it received, but with eyesight, his brain was bombarded with visual cues, none of which made any sense to him.

With eyesight, he was not able to recognize his own family members; moreover, he was not able to comprehend any objects, shapes, colours and distance.  He was not able to distinguish between faces of males and females also recognize pictures and images. With eyesight, Mike even found it very difficult to walk normally and had to take help of his family and doctors to walk out of the hospital. Initially, regaining his eyesight severely impacted Mike’s day-to-day life.  Doctors who treated him opined that his blindness had led to poor development of the visual cortex, resulting in decreased somatosensory development (system of sensory neurons and pathways in the brain that responds to changes in the external environment or inside the body). With regained eyesight, he was able to see but somatosensory was not in the position to assist him.

Today, after 17 long years of his surgery, Mike still has difficulty in reading and understanding the facial expressions of others. When he is not able to make sense of anything visually, he closes his eyes and employes the services of his most trusted memory and other senses to help him understand.

Mike May’s case proves a point that, for seeing we require more than just the eyes.

- Prakash Prabhu
[ Mr.Prakash Prabhu works for The Manipal Group as a Senior HR Manager with over 15 years of corporate experience. He has been the lead writer and contributor to CHIRP magazine.(An intra-Manipal group monthly employee magazine) An avid reader who devours one book after another, Mr.Prabhu is also a certified handwriting analyst.]

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