Scientific Blindspots

One of the internet’s double edged swords: a lot of information is good, but the consequent ton of poorly researched and incorrect information is bad. Even lay people who want to be up-to-date on science must swim through the well-intentioned mistakes of their sources. Take, for example, this article: “Blindspot shows brain rewiring in an instant.”

The title and thrust of the article is that because we don’t notice our blind spot (the spot where there are no photoreceptors due to the  optic nerve) even when deprived of input from the other eye, we must re-wire our brains instantaneously to compensate. “Re-wire” is in fact a horrible way to explain this phenomenon.

In order to produce our visual experience when deprived of input from both eyes, our brains utilize pathways that already exist—a sort of backup circuit. “Re-wire” implies that there the utilized pathway is new.

When the conductor of a train sees a problem ahead on the track and switches over at the next junction, he’s not building a new path. The other path has always been there, he’s just utilizing it in a situation when he otherwise might not.

Scientists have known for some time that the brain has alternate circuits for a variety of sensory modalities (think of “blindsight” for example). The fact that our brains can utilize our natural development and genetic predispositions to create this intricate machinery is incredible. The fact that our brains can cope with unexpected stimuli almost instantaneously is also amazing.  But, let’s be clear: re-wiring—also known as learning—takes time. Contrary to the article’s implication, this study says nothing to the contrary.

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