Friday, March 19, 2010

Learning to See

In my previous post, Perception and Reception, I noted that the concept of information reception in communication and information theory, along with the process of abstracting in general semantics, are closely related to the biological and psychological process of perception.  Perception is not a matter of simply taking in information passively from our environment, but rather it is an active process of probing the environment, selecting what we will attend to, interpreting what we take in, and essentially constructing our view of the world. 

In War and Peace in the Global Village, Marshall McLuhan's 1968 follow-up to his bestselling collaboration, The Medium is the Massage (both books listing Quentin Fiore, who supplied the graphics, as the co-author, and both produced by Jerome Agel), he explains that patients who are born blind and later receive an operation enabling them to see cannot at first make sense of the visual data that their eyes take in.  All that they "see" are patches of light and dark and colors, and it is only through actively engaging with their environment that they learn how to make sense out of their visual sense.

This is exactly what Pawan Sinha talks about in this TED Talk that I am embedding below.  The first 8 minutes of the talk provide a poignant overview of the problem of congenital blindness, and his work aiding blind children in India.  It is very moving, and worth viewing in my opinion, but it is only in the last 10 minutes that he gets into the nitty gritty of how the brain learns how to see.

The brief description accompanying the video is as follows:

Pawan Sinha details his groundbreaking research into how the brain's visual system develops. Sinha and his team provide free vision-restoring treatment to children born blind, and then study how their brains learn to interpret visual data. The work offers insights into neuroscience, engineering and even autism.

While the topic of autism is only briefly mentioned at the end, it is interesting to note the similarity between the temporary problem that the typical brain faces in making sense out of visual stimuli for the first time resemble the ongoing problem that autistic brains encounter in organizing and interpreting such data.

There is also a very interesting point made here about the importance of dynamic input, that is visual motion.  I have long understood that it was active engagement with the environment, which require motion on the viewer's part, that was essential to the process of learning how to see.  The idea that it is also vital to view objects characterized by change and motion makes perfect sense to me.  It also reminds me of the fact that animals that lack binocular vision have to rely on motion to a large extent in using their eyes--this was a plot point in Jurassic Park, you may remember.

Anyway, let me turn the stage over to Sinha, who is well worth 18 minutes of your time:


The TED Talk bio for Sinha simply reads, "Pawan Sinha researches how our brains interpret what our eyes see -- and uses that research to give blind children the gift of sight."  A link to the TED bio page for Sinha includes a longer blurb which I find worthy of quoting here:

At Pawan Sinha's MIT lab, he and his team spend their days trying to understand how the brain learns to recognize and use the patterns and scenes we see around us. To do this, they often use computers to model the processes of the human brain, but they also study human subjects, some of whom are seeing the world for the very first time and can tell them about the experience as it happens. They find these unusual subjects through the humanitarian branch of their research, Project Prakash.
Project Prakash sets up eye-care camps in some of the most habitually underserved regions of India, and gives free eye-health screenings to, since 2003, more than 700 functionally blind children. The children are then treated without charge, even if they do not fit the profile that would make them eligible for Sinha's research.

Sinha's eventual goal is to help 500 children each year; plans are under way for a center for visual rehabilitation in new Delhi. The special relationship that Sinha has created between research and humanitarianism promises to deliver on both fronts.
"The first thing that prompted me was seeing these numbers, the humanitarian goal was just so evident."
Pawan Sinha

It is not everyday that you come across someone doing groundbreaking scientific research and performing great humanitarian work at the same time.  In Pawan Sinha's case, I think we have someone who is very much cast in the mold of Albert Schweitzer.  I wish him the best of success in all of his efforts.

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