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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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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