Ever wonder whether being blind was in some way an advantage for pianists like Ray Charles, George Shearing, Art Tatum, and Stevie Wonder? New research published in the journal PLOS ONE finds that the brains of people blind from a young age are dramatically different than the brains of normally sighted people—showing increased connectivity in areas that deal with touch, hearing, smell, and even memory and language processing. The study was small (12 subjects who were blind before age 3) and needs to be replicated, but researchers say the differences caught by MRI highlight how flexible the human brain is as it compensates for the absence of visual feedback.
"Even in the case of being profoundly blind, the brain rewires itself ... so that it can interact with the environment in a more effective manner," the senior author says in a news release. Follow-up research could look at people whose visual impairment at a young age was the result of brain damage to parts of the brain involved in visual processing instead of damage to the eye. Another research avenue: people blinded later in life instead of at or near birth. Gizmodo flags a 2013 study showing that sighted people who are blindfolded can learn to pick out sounds they first hadn't heard after just 90 minutes of training. Gizmodo allows the same process may not be at play, "but it's another ... hint that our senses may be [more] malleable than we realize." (Bill Cosby's attorneys say he is now legally blind.)