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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From Darwin to Damore - the ancient art of using "science" to mask prejudice

Charles Darwin, working at a time when women had little legal rights, declared “woman is a kind of adult child”.

“In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females,” wrote James Damore, in his now infamous anti-diversity Google memo. “As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more co-operative and agreeable than men.” Since the memo was published, hordes of women have come forward to say that views like these – where individuals justify bias on the basis of science – are not uncommon in their traditionally male-dominated fields. Damore’s controversial screed set off discussions about the age old debate: do biological differences justify discrimination?  

Modern science developed in a society which assumed that man was superior over women. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology, who died before women got the right to vote, argued that young children of both genders resembled adult women more than they did adult men; as a result, “woman is a kind of adult child”.

Racial inequality wasn’t immune from this kind of theorising either. As fields such as psychology and genetics developed a greater understanding about the fundamental building blocks of humanity, many prominent researchers such as Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, argued that there were biological differences between races which explained the ability of the European race to prosper and gather wealth, while other races fell far behind. The same kind of reasoning fuelled the Nazi eugenics and continues to fuel the alt-right in their many guises today.

Once scorned as blasphemy, today "science" is approached by many non-practitioners with a cult-like reverence. Attributing the differences between races and gender to scientific research carries the allure of empiricism. Opponents of "diversity" would have you believe that scientific research validates racism and sexism, even though one's bleeding heart might wish otherwise. 

The problem is that current scientific research just doesn’t agree. Some branches of science, such as physics, are concerned with irrefutable laws of nature. But the reality, as evidenced by the growing convergence of social sciences like sociology, and life sciences, such as biology, is that science as a whole will, and should change. The research coming out of fields like genetics and psychology paint an increasingly complex picture of humanity. Saying (and proving) that gravity exists isn't factually equivalent to saying, and trying to prove, that women are somehow less capable at their jobs because of presumed inherent traits like submissiveness. 

When it comes to matters of race, the argument against racial realism, as it’s often referred to, is unequivocal. A study in 2002, authored by Neil Risch and others, built on the work of the Human Genome Project to examine the long standing and popular myth of seven distinct races. Researchers found that  “62 per cent of Ethiopians belong to the same cluster as Norwegians, together with 21 per cent of the Afro-Caribbeans, and the ethnic label ‘Asian’ inaccurately describes Chinese and Papuans who were placed almost entirely in separate clusters.” All that means is that white supremacists are wrong, and always have been.

Even the researcher Damore cites in his memo, Bradley Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois, doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions.  Schmitt pointed out, in correspondence with Wired, that biological difference only accounts for about 10 per cent of the variance between men and women in what Damore characterises as female traits, such as neuroticism. In addition, nebulous traits such as being “people-oriented” are difficult to define and have led to wildly contradictory research from people who are experts in the fields. Suggesting that women are bad engineers because they’re neurotic is not only mildly ridiculous, but even unsubstantiated by Damore’s own research.  As many have done before him, Damore couched his own worldview - and what he was trying to convince others of - in the language of rationalism, but ultimately didn't pay attention to the facts.

And, even if you did buy into Damore's memo, a true scientist would retort - so what? It's a fallacy to argue that just because a certain state of affairs prevails, that that is the way that it ought to be. If that was the case, why does humanity march on in the direction of technological and industrial progress?

Humans weren’t meant to travel large distances, or we would possess the ability to do so intrinsically. Boats, cars, airplanes, trains, according to the Damore mindset, would be a perversion of nature. As a species, we consider overcoming biology to be a sign of success. 

Of course, the damage done by these kinds of views is not only that they’re hard to counteract, but that they have real consequences. Throughout history, appeals to the supposed rationalism of scientific research have justified moral atrocities such as ethnic sterilisation, apartheid, the creation of the slave trade, and state-sanctioned genocide.

If those in positions of power genuinely think that black and Hispanic communities are genetically predisposed to crime and murder, they’re very unlikely to invest in education, housing and community centres for those groups. Cycles of poverty then continue, and the myth, dressed up in pseudo-science, is entrenched. 

Damore and those like him will certainly maintain that the evidence for gender differences are on their side. Since he was fired from Google, Damore has become somewhat of an icon to some parts of society, giving interviews to right-wing Youtubers and posing in a dubious shirt parodying the Google logo (it now says Goolag). Never mind that Damore’s beloved science has already proved them wrong.