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Math Science

When Blind People Do Algebra, the Brain's Visual Areas Light Up (npr.org) 69

People born without sight appear to solve math problems using visual areas of the brain. NPR has a fascinating report on this: A functional MRI study of 17 people blind since birth found that areas of visual cortex became active when the participants were asked to solve algebra problems, a team from Johns Hopkins reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "And as the equations get harder and harder, activity in these areas goes up in a blind person," says Marina Bedny, an author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. In 19 sighted people doing the same problems, visual areas of the brain showed no increase in activity. "That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex," Bedny says. The findings, published online Friday, challenge the idea that brain tissue intended for one function is limited to tasks that are closely related.
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When Blind People Do Algebra, the Brain's Visual Areas Light Up

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 20, 2016 @10:46AM (#52923633)

    So they're using their GPU to accelerate math processing?
    Do they support CUDA or OpenCL?

    • by fulldecent ( 598482 ) on Tuesday September 20, 2016 @10:48AM (#52923641) Homepage

      > Do they support CUDA or OpenCL?

      Is a question with serious ethical implications.

    • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Tuesday September 20, 2016 @11:04AM (#52923761)

      More importantly, can you stick a bunch of blind people in a room and get them to mine bitcoins?

    • "" challenge the idea that brain tissue intended for one function is limited to tasks that are closely related."" .. OR .. Algebra is closely related to sight. .. Jumping to conclusions is bad...mmmmkay?
    • So they're using their GPU to accelerate math processing?

      Perhaps, or perhaps not [theregister.co.uk]. Given the usual submission to publication lead times on journals I suspect they have some debugging to do.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I think this is actually a good analogy.

      Graphics processors can be used to do math, it makes sense that the brain would repurpose nonfunctional areas for other things.

      Think about it, the brain has all these neurons capable of doing all these calculations to recognize objects rotated at various angles... It would make sense to repurpose them for something else if they aren't being used, for example because your optic nerve is fried and no visualnsensory input is coming to your brain.

      It's clear that the brai

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Algebra calls for pattern recognition... and the visual cortex is VERY good at pattern recognition.

    • Conclusion: "That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex,"

      Algebra calls for pattern recognition... and the visual cortex is VERY good at pattern recognition.

      uhh..? You called nonsense on their conclusion, then basically restated their conclusion.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        He probably meant to call nonsense on the summary which says "challenge the idea that brain tissue intended for one function is limited to tasks that are closely related."
        The summary leaves it open who claimed that part though.

  • Blind people use the visual cortex for things like echo-location, etc., as well as to "visualize" the layout of their surroundings, which makes sense - the visual cortex is for spatial relationships. Changing the input source shouldn't make much of a difference - it's not like the brain isn't somewhat plastic.
    • "Blind people use the visual cortex for things like echo-location, etc"

      Batman would be OK if he went blind then.

      (yes, I have read about a handful of blind, and sighted, people who have learnt to maneuver using echo-location).

      • Echo-navigation is common for blind kids [wonderbaby.org] - some of them even discover it on their own. Others can quickly learn it.

        Echolocation is a natural practice for any youngster with a visual impairment. Children will often walk into a new space or new room and stomp their feet or yell, seemingly out of the blue. What they are really doing is perceiving a change in the "soundscape" or the echoes that the room produces. Young children, without being trained, can easily tell if they are indoors, outdoors, in a large empty room or a small furnished room, etc. simply by listening to the echoes or "reverberations" of that particular space.

        The "skill" of echolocation has not generally been taught in regimented training. It is instead used subconsciously to gain a small amount of information about one's environment. However, with more research and more people willing to try, echolocation is becoming far more accepted and understood by practitioners and trainers. It can give the user information about distant objects, materials, shapes, and movement of objects without having to physically interact with them via a cane. It allows the blind to "sight-see" and enjoy trees, statues, architecture and more.

        It's no big deal, really. Even sighted people can tell without looking, just by making a click with their tongue, whether they're in a small room, a hall, or outside.

      • by mlheur ( 212082 )

        I'm pretty sure sighted people use the same part of the brain to process maths. Ever hear of people who associate numbers with colours?
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • I'm surprised it's not lighting up for everyone.

    Then again, maybe it is too busy processing input from the optic nerves so the brain had to use some other area to do the algebra.

    • They're not saying it's not lighting up for everyone. They're saying that there's no increase in visual cortex activity. I find that if I'm sitting and thinking about a complex math or visual-spatial problem, I stop seeing somewhat. I'm just unable to notice what's going on around me. It's likely that sighted people are just reducing their real-world visual processing to make way for the other computation.

  • Back in the 1970s I was an undergraduate at a highly-ranked math department. One of the professors there had no eyes. (It was a birth defect - they had not formed, and his face was slightly collapsed where they should have been.)

    When a student would try to skip doing some part of a rigorous proof by substituting a geometric drawing, the other profs would ask "How would you explain it to [him]?".

    This guy was VERY good. But he had a "blind spot" occasionally when a graphic analogy would have pointed him to

  • by Anonymous Coward

    A bug in fMRI software could invalidate 15 years of brain research [sciencealert.com]

    Let's hope this study used the latest patch?

  • That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex

    Well, it doesn't have anything else better to do.

  • Since their visual cortex is now reassigned to other functions like solving algebra, I wonder what they would see if they suddenly got their sight back?

  • That's how Ron Burgundy rolls.
  • Even though it's a long long time ago, I can still remember learning algebra at school. I could mostly "see" the answers by looking at the questions. When asked to show my workings, I was often at a loss, and suspected of cheating. This took me just as far as quadratics when I had to start doing things the laborious way. I wonder whether my visual cortex was at work - because -

    I've had a life-long interest in writing systems. IMO Japanese being the most complex and Georgian the most beautiful.

    BTW I HAT

  • Unless this article [jneurosci.org] is mistaken, this sounds like an extension of a known phenomenon. And I can't remember where I read it, but I also remember reading another article years ago theorizing that in some cases this effect could be the brain sort of "redistributing" its load to areas that are underutilized and can handle it. There was no proof, but I thought it was an interesting theory.

    In short, just because you don't have a functioning sensory organ, that doesn't mean the brain will completely stop using t

  • by maiden_taiwan ( 516943 ) on Tuesday September 20, 2016 @04:49PM (#52926713)

    Neuroscientists have known for years that the brain has few "dedicated" areas for any particular function, such as math. Instead, many collections of neurons can accomplish the same function. This is called degeneracy [wikipedia.org]. (Terrible name, I know... let the jokes about degenerate mathematicians begin....)

    Also, the brain doesn't "light up" as if were sitting around idle and suddenly leaps into action. The whole brain is active all the time. This is called intrinsic brain activity.

    Anyone who talks about brain areas "lighting up," or believes that each region of the brain has a dedicated function, is at least a decade behind modern neuroscience.

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