How it Feels to Live in Darkness

August 16, 2016

I know there isn’t one dot of light, but I frantically scan the pitch-black area surrounding me out of habit nonetheless.

As I shuffle slowly through the carpeted hallway, clumsily swinging my long cane in a small arch the way the guide instructed a minute ago, I can hear the sounds of exotic birds, the rustle of wind through the trees and a babbling brook just around the corner. After stumbling through a doorway, the flat carpet suddenly gives way to a hill covered in rocks. The breeze hits my face and the cacophony of an artificial forest is everywhere.

“Okay kids! We’re in the nature now. What can you find?” says our guide, 45-year-old Meair Mattityahu, who lost his sight shortly after birth.

“I found a tree!” shouts an 11-year old girl visiting with her family from New York. I’m still lagging behind the group, standing a few feet from the entrance on the bumpy mound that imitates earth, trying to get my bearings. Now that I know there are obstacles, I’m worried that if I take another step I’m going to walk directly into a tree.

This is just the first room of seven at the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition at the Children’s Museum in Holon, Israel, more commonly referred to as the “blind museum.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 38 million people are blind around the world, with an additional 110 million having low vision and at great risk of becoming blind. Like the dark dining concept, where visitors eat in a restaurant that is in complete darkness, this exhibition, which started in Germany in 1988 and has franchises in several countries, is designed to bridge understanding between sighted and blind people, and give visitors a taste of what it feels like to be blind.

Mattityahu says that he’s witnessed all kinds of initial reactions to the exhibit. Some people panic, some start screaming as if others won’t be able to hear them in the dark, others laugh. At least one has fainted. “Some people become so disoriented and unfocused that they can’t tell left from right,” he says. “I’ll tell them to use their left hand to find the wall, and they can’t do it.”

By the end of our 90-minute tour, we will have ridden on a boat, wandered through a house, walked down a public street, shopped for fruit and vegetables at a grocery store and drank soda in a bar, all in complete darkness. Though it’s terrifying at first, it is also enlightening. About half-an-hour in, I find that my other senses are more focused, primarily hearing and touch, including the telling bumps beneath my cane, and it becomes increasingly easy and more natural to navigate through each room.

Our brains are, after all, enormously adaptable to make the most of what they are given. For sighted people, the areas of the brain’s cortex devoted to visual processing has more neurons than those processing hearing and touch combined, allowing our eyes to quickly analyse our surroundings. In the absence of sight, however, our others senses may pick up the slack. Research on blindness and neuroplasticity have even shown that being blind can change the way the brain processes information, with studies demonstrating that early-blind individuals use their occipital cortex in auditory, verbal processing and/or tactile processing.

“A lot of work has shown that blind people recruit occipital areas to process non-visual stimuli, including hearing and touch,” says Patrice Voss, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University. “The more a blind subject shows activity in their visual brain, the better they are at some auditory processes.”

Voss’s research has shown that early-blind people outperform sighted people at locating sounds on a horizontal plane when limited to one ear, while other studies have shown blind people outperform sighted people on other nonvisual tasks like recognising voices and verbal memory.

Though people who lose their sight later in life still exhibit behavioral changes, Voss says that early or congenitally blind individuals typical benefit from more reorganisation of visual areas than people who lose their sight in adulthood.

“Our brain is less plastic as we age, so there’s less room for change. But early experience also drives the connections that our brain forms,” he says. “If you’re deprived of visual input early on you will likely become more accustomed to processing non-visual input within the visual areas.”

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