Sound and vision: Kraftwerk perform in New York, 2012. (Photo: Getty)
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Having trouble with your vision? There’s an app for that

EyeMusic will allow you to hear shapes and colours

Having trouble with your vision? There’s an app for that. It’s called EyeMusic, and it’s the result of remarkable research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It will allow you to hear shapes and colours, training your brain to process sensory information in a completely different way – and it’s rewriting what we thought we knew about how the brain works.

A report published in the 17 March edition of the journal Current Biology has surprised researchers by demonstrating that people who have been blind from birth can be trained to recognise silhouettes of the human body in various postures. The training involves around ten hours of listening to sounds. Once trained, the research subjects’ brains used sound – employing the same area as sighted people use – to recognise body postures.

This is surprising, because researchers have always assumed that the neurons used for visual processing will be reassigned in someone whose brain isn’t getting visual inputs. Received wisdom had it that they might, for instance, be used by the auditory system to enhance processing of sound signals. The idea is related to the frequent (but wrong) assertion that if you lose one sense, others become more sensitive. Studies suggest that the sense of smell is no more acute in blind people. Neither are they sharper of ear; they are perhaps marginally better at making use of auditory information, but they don’t actually hear better.

Not that making better use of sounds is to be sniffed at. There are visually impaired people who use bat-like echolocation to navigate their way through busy streets, for example. Perhaps most extraordinary is the Californian Daniel Kish. Thanks to an aggressive childhood cancer, Kish has no eyes. At the age of two he began to train himself to use the echoes of his tongue-clicks as a guide to his surroundings.

Kish can go out for a bike ride safely and hike alone through mountainous terrain. He has refined his skill to the point where his clicks and their echoes provide him with a 3D mental image of his environment. He teaches his craft to other blind people, liberating them from the severe restrictions that are so common for those without sight.

Amir Amedi’s lab in Jerusalem has a similar goal. With training, Amedi says, visual areas of the brain can process sound and touch just as successfully as they would visual inputs.

This month’s paper makes that case forcefully. Written
by Amedi’s student Ella Striem-Amit, it focuses on a region of the brain known as the extrastriate body area, which is devoted to recognising body shapes. In Striem-Amit’s adult, fully blind subjects, this area had had no training whatsoever. However, their extrastriate body area still functioned perfectly – it just needed a few hours of priming.

Amedi’s EyeMusic iPhone app runs the user through a library of sounds associated with visual patterns and shapes. Once the training is complete, sound combinations begin to suggest visual scenes.

It will take a while before you become as competent as the trainee who can play a sonic version of Guess Who? by associating sounds with facial characteristics such as hair colour, beardedness or spectacles. But it won’t take long to appreciate that your brain is a marvellously flexible organ that, with the right training, can give you the next best thing to superpowers. The app also collects performance data that will help Amedi develop his research.

Why play Candy Crush when you can idle away your time helping science give sight to the blind? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Why the philosophy of people-rating app Peeple is fundamentally flawed

The app claims that “character is destiny”, and that we should be constantly judged based on our past interactions with others. But do we really believe that? 

Yesterday, you were probably one of the millions around the world who recoiled from their screen in blank-eyed horror at the news: Peeple, an app to be launched in November, will let others rate you, publicly, on the internet, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't opt out, and you don't need to join in order to be rated on a scale of one to five by colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. That boy whose girlfriend you stole? He can review you. The boss you swore at as you quit? Her, too. Those people in your life who think you're just a bit average? Expect a lukewarm three stars from them.

Of all the online rage at the app's announcement, perhaps the most was directed at the fact that you can't remove your own profile. Other users need only submit your mobile number and name to create your page, and you have no control about who posts on there. Reviews of two stars or less are invisible to the public for 48 hours, and you have the chance to review them and try to "work it out" with the rater. Once that time is up, though, the negative reviews appear for all to see. You can comment on them to defend your corner, but unless they break the app's rules, you can't delete them.

There are all kinds of problems with Peeple's premise. Despite its founders' promises that bullying and harassment won't be tolerated (helped slightly by the fact that users must be over 21 and use their full name and Facebook profile to comment), it seems impossible that they'll be able to moderate this effectively. And as we've learned from sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the majority of reviews are from those seeking to boost the company's reputation, rivals, or angry customers - it's rare to see one that's balanced and helpful.

Yet the biggest flaw of all is the assumption that public rating and shaming has a place, or is even acceptable, in our society. There's something fundamentally broken in the app's presmise, which is summarised in its tagline, "character is destiny".  As western society has moved on from earlier ages where people were fundamentally changed in the eyes of the law and public into "criminals" by virtue of their deeds, or a time where a woman was utterly defined by her sexual acts, we've ceased to accept this as truth. The app's whole set-up assumes that someone who has offended a co-worker is likely to do it again, or a positive review from a partner makes it likely you'll enjoy a good relationship with them. As a society, we accept that some violent criminals are likely to re-offend, but we also see the value of rehabilitation, and can accept that people make mistakes they're unlikely to repeat. 

The dark side of social media is that it moves us backwards on this front. It allows permanent imprints of our online lives to be seen by everyone, to the extent where they seem to represent us. Victims of cyberbullying terrified that naked photos of them will be released, or people who make public gaffes on social media, become reduced to and defined by single acts. The mental health deterioration (and sometimes  suicide) that follows these shamings hints at how unnatural it is for single actions to change lives in such disproportionate ways. 

Jon Ronson, author of So you've been publicly shamed, which cleverly links the current culture of internet shaming with a legal past where criminals were shamed indefinitely as criminals for a single illegal act, seems chilled by the prospect of Peeple:

As one review of Ronson's book noted:

As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life.

As Ronson explores in his book, extreme public shaming doesn't make us better people, or encourage us not to repeat offend: it shuts us down and exiles us from society in a way that benefits no one. (This makes Peeple's URL – – seem grimly ironic). What Ronson calls "chronic shame" occurs when our regretted actions harden into something far greater, something we allow to become part of ourselves. As Gershen Kaufman, a scholar of shame, notes:  "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

We also shouldn't be forever defined by a clutch of "good" actions, or people who see some benefit in leaving us gushing reviews. Those who measure their worth through social media come to rely on the endorphins sparked by small online interactions and boosts to their confidence, at the expense of the more slow-burning satisfaction of real life. A single person's thoughts about us are relatively inconsequential, whether positive or negative - but they're given far greater weight on the internet  by virtue of their permanence and publicity.

In Mary Gordon's novella The Rest of Life, a character wishes that someone had told her earlier that "the world is large and will absorb the errors you innocently make". If we're to avoid tearing each other to pieces, we need to make sure that this remains the case. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.