How is an environment represented in the brain? Assuming you’re reading this with your eyes right now, it’s likely that your representation is encoded visually. Maybe you picture a map, or various scenes along a route. But what if you’ve been blind your whole life? Do you still “picture” a map?
A few months ago, Science Magazine reported on a series of studies looking at whether blind children could learn the layout of a virtual environment by auditory cues – localized humming would get louder as the game character moved closer to walls. When these same children were placed in a spatially identical real world environment, they could navigate perfectly well. When other blind participants were scanned using fMRI as they learned the virtual environment, the occipital lobe – the same brain area used to process visual information in seeing individuals – was activated.
There’s a lot in this for cognitive scientists. The findings suggest there are strong similarities between spatial representations across virtual and real environments. Even between blind and sighted individuals, who encode (at least virtual) environments in totally different ways, there could be a common underlying spatial representation.
Check out the links below for more info. And click here for a fascinating account of an alternative way blind individuals have found to encode space using echolocation (yeah, like bats).
Article [You’ll hit the paywall and just see a summary if you don’t have a Science subscription].