When Beverly Biderman, who was deaf since childhood, learned to hear again using a cochlear implant, she used to go on "sound hunts." She made all sorts of discoveries like the whistling noise at the end of a word is the sound of "s." Sounds that were obvious to you or me were revelations to Biderman.

Recently, one of my colleagues rushed into my office to tell me about her friend's visual revelations. As a result of vision therapy, her friend was learning to see in 3D. "The sink faucet just popped out at me!" her friend had exclaimed to my colleague and "plants take up volumes of space!"

The experiences described above do not seem earth-shaking to a person with normal hearing and vision. Yet, it's very important to someone just learning new perceptual skills to feel great joy and satisfaction with each small discovery. Rewiring your brain is hard work. You must practice tasks that resemble everyday activities, think carefully about how you are doing the tasks, and repeat them over and over. Rather than dwelling on what you cannot see or hear, you should savor each new sensation and feel good about your own ability to change. Novel and rewarding experiences not only encourage people to work harder at their therapy but also have direct effects on brain wiring. When a person experiences something new and gratifying, neurons in the brainstem and basal forebrain are activated and liberate powerful neuromodulators onto circuits in the cerebral cortex. These neuromodulators, including dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine, trigger the changes in neuronal connections that underlie new perceptual experiences and learning.

When Heather Fitzpatrick, cross-eyed since early childhood, first learned to combine or fuse images from her two eyes, she wrote to me,

"I like the way my head feels once I get it [fusion]. . . . [I]t is a bit like finding the perfect arm position when swimming, you get the maximum pull with the least effort. . . . It feels as though things are in sync. I actually feel my brain looking through my eyes and it is this perfect balance . . . !"

Had a scientist been recording neuronal activity from Heather's brain at the moment she fused the images from her two eyes, he probably would have seen the neuromodulatory areas of her brain firing like mad, liberating their chemical messengers onto her visual cortical cells and facilitating learning changes in her brain.

When I learned to see in 3D, all I wanted was to be left alone to look and explore. I spent hours simply looking at ordinary objects like straws sticking out of plastic drink glasses, building pipes suspended from the ceiling, and telephone poles in long, straight rows. Like Beverly Biderman who went on sound hunts, I went on searches for new sights. I explored greenhouses where the plants popped out at me or modern art galleries where I could examine the intriguing pockets of space within each piece of sculpture. Like a baby, I was in a constant exploratory state, activating the neuromodulatory areas of my brain. When I learned to see anew, I reshaped my own brain circuitry and experienced the delights of a child.

Note: One of the best descriptions I have read about what it is like to rewire your brain is the second chapter "Learning to Hear" in Beverly Biderman's book, Wired for Sound.

Heather Fitzpatrick also has her own blog on her vision therapy experiences which you can find here.

About the Author

Susan Barry by Rosalie Winard

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

You are reading

Eyes on the Brain

A Tribute to Letter Writing and to Oliver Sacks

May letter writing never become a lost art.

On Being a Subject of Oliver Sacks

How Oliver Sacks taught me how to listen.

Changing Minds

How malleable is adult vision: a survey.