LULU MILLER, HOST:
From NPR News, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Lulu Miller.
ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Alix Spiegel. What we do on our show is we try to look at human behavior, particularly how invisible stuff like emotions and beliefs and ideas shape our lives. And today, we are using the story of a blind man named Daniel Kish to look at how profoundly expectations can affect us. And when last we met Daniel, he had decided that he was going to become kind of a real-life Batman who saved people who were blind from the low expectations of their culture.
Though, I have to say, we talked to plenty of people who are blind who said that they didn't really need saving through echolocation. They got along just fine with a cane or a guide dog. But Daniel had a mission.
So, Lulu, what did he do?
MILLER: Well, he starts up a nonprofit.
MILLER: As you do - a nonprofit that will teach people how to echolocate. This is one of his early instructional videos. It's now 2001. And since his aim is nothing short of liberation, he calls it World Access for the Blind.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: World Access for the Blind.
MILLER: Now, the only little problem that he runs into is that at that time, a blind person teaching another blind person how to get around is basically unheard of.
DANIEL KISH: The blind cannot lead the blind is right out of the Bible. It's fundamental to our culture.
MILLER: In fact, until the mid-'90s...
KISH: There was no certification for blind people to train other blind people.
ROBERT SCOTT: Blind people can't do those things.
MILLER: So this is actually when the bike trick became big. Like, though he sort of hates, look at the blind man ride a bike, he realized that could get him attention. So he starts going on all these TV shows with his trick.
KISH: You know, and my segment was between something about vampires and something about faith healing or whatever.
MILLER: And on these TV appearances, he tried to send some sort of signal to blind kids who might be watching who might be able to contact him.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNKNOWN TV SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED HOST: Dan, can anyone learn this?
KISH: Echolocation is a skill - piano playing, for example. Some people may be more talented than others, but I think that anyone could learn it.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
MILLER: ...it worked.
MILLER: Slowly but surely, families started contacting him, which meant Daniel was now faced with a question - could he actually undo the damage of low expectations? And this is where things began to get a little morally complicated.
KISH: The example I'm about to give is an example that took place about 10 years ago.
MILLER: Daniel told me about going out to teach one of his first students ever, a little 10-year-old boy...
KISH: He lives on an apple orchard.
MILLER: ...Out in Washington State.
KISH: I come out and basically what I see is a boy who won't leave his house.
MILLER: And so Daniel's idea was to get him to climb a tree.
KISH: They live on an orchard full of trees, for goodness' sakes.
MILLER: But the kid won't budge. So to get him out the door, Daniel takes away all his toys.
KISH: Our purpose was to kind of simulate the world that he was choosing for himself. So this is what life will have in store for you - basically nothing, OK? Nothing.
MILLER: And after about a week the kid finally agrees to go climb a fricking tree. And he gets up onto the first branch, and the second branch and then says, OK...
KISH: I give up, I give up. Yeah, but you know what? Giving up isn't an option. You can decide never to climb a tree for the rest of your life, but we are going to climb this one. And I said you can go up, you cannot go down. And he just had a fit, literally screaming himself hoarse. I mean, he actually jumped at one point. Like, he actually leapt off the tree he was in such a frenzy.
MILLER: Oh, my God.
SPIEGEL: And what does Daniel do?
MILLER: Well, he catches him. He's right below him and he just says, no...
KISH: You can go up. You cannot go down.
MILLER: And they stay in this tree battling it out.
KISH: Inch by inch, it took three hours to get up a 60-foot tree.
MILLER: But by the end, the kid was doing it himself.
KISH: Doing it himself. He started finding his own footholds, finding his old handholds.
MILLER: And Daniel thinks this training, and how the parents then took it on too, changed the boy's life.
KISH: By the age of 13 he was out of his shell. He had joined Boy Scouts. That is, in no way, where he was headed.
SPIEGEL: That is just crazy though, that story, on some level. I don't know if that kind of bullying is even allowed in America anymore, you know?
MILLER: Yeah, and he has been called reckless by other blindness organizations.
SPIEGEL: I bet.
MILLER: But see, Daniel would say that attitude, Alix, is part of the problem. So what are a few tears, a few scratches? He has this line he always says.
KISH: Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster.
MILLER: He worries that when you prevent a kid from say, running into a pole, what you end up preventing them from is the kind of experience that allow for - and this gets me back to that crazy-sounding claim he made at the beginning of the show - actual sight.
KISH: If our culture recognized the capacity of blind people to see, then more blind people would learn to see. It's actually - it's pretty simple and straightforward.
MILLER: Daniel thinks this because well, he says he sees.
KISH: I definitely would say that I experience images, that I have images.
MILLER: And he isn't talking metaphorically here.
KISH: They are images of spatial character and depth that have a lot of the same qualities that a person who sees would see.
LORE THALER: Hello?
MILLER: This is Lore Thaler, a German neuroscientist at Durham University in the U.K., and Lore knows a lot about sight. She studies vision in the brain, literally how the images we see are constructed.
THALER: It sounds simple, but an image is actually a complex construct.
MILLER: Several years ago Lore happened across a video of Daniel and as she watched the way that he so easily moves through space, she found herself wondering, was there any way that Daniel's brain was indeed constructing images?
THALER: It was so akin to vision, really.
MILLER: OK. So, now you may know this already, but Lore reminded me that an image, even though it feels like it's out there in the world in front of your eyes, actually exists behind the eyes.
THALER: In the end, the image, it's something that your mind constructs.
MILLER: So Lore brought Daniel and a few other people who can echolocate into her lab and she took recordings of them while they clicked at different objects in space. A car, a lamppost - these are her actual recordings.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
MILLER: A salad bowl, a salad bowl in motion.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
SPIEGEL: How do you get a salad bowl in motion?
MILLER: You stand behind the person with a salad bowl on a fishing pole and you slowly wave it.
SPIEGEL: And the microphones are actually in their ears?
THALER: So we recorded what they heard exactly.
SPIEGEL: Oh, that's neat.
MILLER: And then she played the recordings back to them, one object at a time while they were lying down in fMRI machines so she could watch how their brains responded. Salad bowl, salad bowl in motion. And then she compared those readings to what happens in the brains of sighted people looking at the same kinds of things - Salad bowl. Salad bowl in motion.
SPIEGEL: Very clever. Very clever.
MILLER: Yep. And what she found is that even though for decades scientists assumed that the visual cortex goes dark when you're blind, Daniel's was lighting up like a disco ball.
THALER: Yeah, so that was really very impressive.
MILLER: And the way in which it was lighting up - this is really cool - so it turns out that there are all these different parts of the brain involved in vision. So there's an area that's specifically dedicated to processing motion, and that's way over here behind the ears. And then there's a completely different area for texture...
THALER: ...Lightness, so how bright is something.
MILLER: ...Orientation, shape. And in Daniel's brain, many of these areas were lighting up. Color and brightness, no action there. But motion, when they did that salad bowl and motion test, the motion area behind the ears started pumping with blood flow.
THALER: Very vigorously.
MILLER: And orientation, turns out there's sort of a grid for orientation in the brain, like a whole bunch of little pixels in a grid. And she could watch as the salad bowl moved across it.
THALER: It was really robust, highly significant.
MILLER: All right, Ms. Spiegel, so I know that sometimes neurology and neuroscience...
SPIEGEL: ...Goes over my head?
MILLER: Or just sounds like a foreign language that you're not particularly interested in speaking, but...
SPIEGEL: Just land the plane for me.
SPIEGEL: What does this mean?
MILLER: What this work suggests is that you may not actually need eyes to see.
I kind of feel like we got to shout it from the rooftops (laughter). Come on.
SPIEGEL: (Laughter) Oh, my god.
MILLER: OK. You might not need eyes to see.
Now, Lore is by no means the only person seeing this result. The idea first started coming up in the mid-'90s, when a lab at Harvard saw that visual areas of the brain can be activated by sound and touch.
SPIEGEL: Do I have to do it?
SPIEGEL: You might not need eyes to see.
MILLER: And since then, dozens of labs have been looking into just how nuanced and rich that visual imagery may be. So there's a guy at Berkeley, Santani Teng, who's been trying to determine the acuity of these images, you know, like an eye test, how close to 20-20 are they? And what he's found is that there's 75 percent localization thresholds indicated spatial acuity as fine as 1.5 degrees of the subtended angle.
MILLER: It's true. I'll put it another way. He thinks their world looks a lot like your peripheral vision. So imagine that you're texting on your cell phone walking down the street. OK, you're looking at that screen. Now, what does the street look like to you? You know, you can see people coming at you. You can see cars. You can see trees. But you couldn't read a sign. That, he thinks, is their world.
KISH: I can honestly, honestly say that I do not feel blind.
SPIEGEL: So what does Lore say about this? Does she think that the echolocators are actually seeing?
THALER: That's almost philosophical, isn't it?
MILLER: Lore asks the only people on Earth who can know - people who used to see. You know, is what they're experiencing comparable?
BRIAN BUSHWAY: Yeah, oh, yeah.
MILLER: This is Brian Bushway, who you met briefly at the top of the show.
BUSHWAY: So step right up. I became totally blind at the age of 14.
MILLER: But once he learned echolocation...
BUSHWAY: Just (snaps) like that.
MILLER: ...The world around him, although blurrier and colorless, appeared again.
BUSHWAY: Things are real. I mean, it's as real as looking at it.
MILLER: Let's get, like, over to the edge so the whole world can hear it. You might not need eyes to see.
SPIEGEL: But wait, so, Lulu, does every blind person have this?
MILLER: No, and that's the thing. Lore has looked at the brains of people who do not echolocate, and although there is definitely some activity in the visual cortex, it's simply not as active - which brings me back to Daniel's teaching methods. The thing about echolocation is yes, you can learn it when you get older, but it gets so much harder with age, which is why Daniel doesn't give a damn about making a little kid cry. Because he thinks at the other end of those tears is sight.
KISH: OK, off we go.
MILLER: So I finally got to see one of these training sessions in action. We went to see a 5-year-old boy named Nathan Nip.
KISH: OK, so what we'll do then is we'll ask Nathan's mom about parks or someplace that he doesn't know.
MILLER: Brian's with us, too, actually. He's now one of Daniel's deputy teachers.
KISH: He can click.
MILLER: And part of the goal that day was to get Nathan out of his comfort zone. But the bigger part - and really, what is often this other, major part of what Daniel is trying to teach - is to get the people around Nathan to back off.
MILLER: So we go into the house.
NATHAN: I am 5 and a half, and Ashton's 2.
MILLER: Daniel asks to hear Nathan's clicks.
KISH: You have a nice smiley click.
MILLER: And then, we head out to a far-away park.
BUSHWAY: What do you - where are we? Where do you think we're at?
NATHAN: At the field.
BUSHWAY: At the field.
MILLER: Ding, ding ding, it's a sports field, flanked by really busy road.
BUSHWAY: Nathan? (Clicking), Nathan?
MILLER: And the idea is to make Nathan find his way around this park by himself.
BUSHWAY: So we want to use our - (clicking) - our clicks. And we're going to explore what's around here in this spark. Let's see if we can find anything, OK?
MILLER: So he finds a soccer net.
MILLER: He tries to find a fence at one side of the park...
BUSHWAY: Well, you're - yeah, we're in the bushes.
MILLER: ...But gets a little turned around.
BUSHWAY: Come back toward me.
GODMOTHER: Nathan, stop.
BUSHWAY: Nathan, come back toward me.
MILLER: And then, it's time to find the edge of the road.
BUSHWAY: What noises do we hear, right now?
MILLER: So Brian tells Nathan to walk toward those cars.
BUSHWAY: And we'll all follow behind you.
MILLER: At this point, it's just me and the godmother and Brian.
NATHAN: Where's Ashton?
BUSHWAY: He's over there.
MILLER: Everyone else is on the other side of the park. Nathan is leading.
BUSHWAY: Can I hear you click?
MILLER: And picture this. I mean, this is, like, a little 5-year-old-boy with a tiny, white cane...
SPIEGEL: Kind of tapping his way towards oncoming traffic (laughter)?
MILLER: ...Tapping his way toward oncoming traffic, which is a jarring sight. And the person closest to him is Brian, who is also blind.
BUSHWAY: Listen out in front of you. Listen into the distance.
MILLER: And he's getting closer and closer to the edge of the road. Four feet, three feet, and then, his godmother just shoots out and grabs him back. And Brian kind of noticeably flinched.
BUSHWAY: Let's all try to stay, like, more or less behind him.
MILLER: Because while he completely understands why the godmother would reach out for Nathan, he said it is precisely that kind of moment that does the damage.
BUSHWAY: Often, sighted people will jump in half a second too soon, and they rob the blind student from that learning moment. And that just keeps happening over and over again in, I think, so many blind people's lives, that they never get that moment of what it is to really have that self-confidence - to trust your senses to know, oh, if I do use my cane properly and I am listening attentively to information around me, I'll be OK.
MILLER: I think part of the problem is that, you know, when we have eyes, we can see things coming from further away. The whole point is, like, when it's your cane and you're clicking, like, you catch edges at what appears like the last moment, but you catch it.
BUSHWAY: We don't need to go any farther. Why? Why don't we need to go any further?
NATHAN: Because there's cars.
BUSHWAY: Yeah, so that means the street's here.
SPIEGEL: Can I ask you a question? What if you're a half-second too late?
SPIEGEL: Because I think that, probably, a lot of parents - I mean, the thing that keeps them reaching out well before the half-second before is kind of the specter of the half-second after.
MILLER: So you - I think you grabbed him, there.
GODMOTHER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MILLER: And what was that moment like?
Well, this is exactly what Nathan's godmother brought up.
GODMOTHER: It is hard.
MILLER: You know, she understands the dangers of a half-second too early.
GODMOTHER: He has to learn to - how to make that judgment.
MILLER: But at the end of the day, she is far more concerned about the dangers of a half second too late.
GODMOTHER: You don't really want to risk that.
MILLER: Which brings me to possibly the biggest thing that Daniel is up against in his quest to change expectations - love.
DANIEL NORRIS: You can't blame mom and dad for struggling and wanting to keep their child safe.
MILLER: This is Dan Norris again from the blindness organization in Vermont. And when we asked him if a change like the one Daniel's hoping for could actually take place, one of the main obstacles he brought up was love.
NORRIS: It's very hard as a parent with a child who's visually impaired to let go.
MILLER: Even when the expectations for that kid are high, he said love can get in the way.
NORRIS: Those parents, they want to keep their child safe. They want their child to not suffer, and that's very noble, but holds the kids back.
MILLER: So in 10 years in the field, how many kids on bikes have you seen - blind kids on bikes?
NORRIS: Blind kids on bikes - I have seen about five.
SPIEGEL: That's actually pretty good.
NORRIS: Yeah, I think that we are seeing society begin to change and people like Daniel are a major impact.
MILLER: But when he thinks about the sheer volume of love brimming in every household, on every schoolyard, and every street corner...
NORRIS: Are we going to get there anytime soon as a nation? No, I don't think so.
MILLER: And this gets us finally to what may have been Daniel's one true superpower.
KISH: What most people find to be the meaning of life absolutely creeps me out.
MILLER: Daniel is 49 and has never been with a partner. And he finds the whole idea of physical intimacy...
MILLER: We had finally reached the end of our hike, the place Daniel wanted to take me.
KISH: Isn't this, like, awesome?
It was a huge old oak tree, miles from civilization, that Daniel said was one of his favorite spots on earth.
MILLER: And so we climbed up it together.
KISH: Let's see where I would go.
MILLER: Twenty feet, 30 feet, maybe 40 feet.
You're very high.
And it was there in the branches that he told me he's never really been one for love.
KISH: I was never that interested in closeness as a kid. I wasn't really a lap sitter. I didn't like holding hands. I didn't really like hugs.
MILLER: He even used to have nightmares about it.
KISH: You know, a child's mind will turn things into very ghoulish, ghastly, deeply unsettling, spooky things.
MILLER: Like, what - like, what would be a nightmare about?
KISH: There were two.
MILLER: In one, a hand chased after him.
KISH: And then the other thing were the plastic arms that want to sort of engulf and enfold and just kind of take you in to themselves.
MILLER: He's not sure where this comes from. He wonders if it could have been the surgeries he had as a tiny boy or from the way his parents raised him or maybe he just always was that way.
KISH: Who knows?
MILLER: And while he is not suggesting that you need this quality to become independent, when he looks back he wonders if this may have been the very thing that protected him from the debilitating effects of low expectations because unlike the rest of us, when those arms reached out for him, he never once had any desire to fall back into them.
PAULETTE KISH: Everything that happens in your life has its effect.
MILLER: That's his mom again, Paulette.
PAULETTE KISH: Has its effect.
MILLER: And you don't think it's that Daniel became this way because he was in some way neglected or 'cause it was too hard? Is there any part of you that thinks you went too far in terms of letting him be?
PAULETTE KISH: No, no, he's happy.
KISH: Totally happy.
MILLER: We sat there for a while, watching the afternoon slip away.
KISH: Listen to how quiet it is.
MILLER: And suddenly I got that pang you get when you realize it's getting dark and you are far, far away from civilization. And that was followed by another pang that it literally didn't matter because he'd be the one leading us out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONGUE CLICKING)
(SOUNDBITE OF TONGUE CLICKING)
MILLER: The end.
SPIEGEL: OK, everybody. Spiegel here again. So you have just spent the last hour of your life listening to Daniel Kish make the argument that if we all just changed our expectations, the blind could come to see. And at the beginning of this program, we said to you, you know, at the end we wanted you to decide, so now is the moment of truth. If Daniel has convinced you and you think the blind could come to see, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBEL")
G-EAZY: (Rapping) I'm a rebel to the system 'cause the system sucks.
MILLER: All right, skeptical NPR employees, who formerly doubted that expectations could make a rat run a race through a maze, do you think if we changed our expectations blind people could come to see?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Absolutely.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.
King of expectancy research, Bob Rosenthal, do you believe that if we changed our expectations blind people could come to see?
BOB ROSENTHAL: Yes (laughter) now I do.
SPIEGEL: Dad, your blind, what do you think?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No.
SPIEGEL: Well, INVISIBILIA is me, Alix Spiegel.
MILLER: And me, Lulu Miller.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.