Daniel Kish: How Can You See Without Seeing? Daniel Kish has been blind since he was 13 months old, but has learned to "see" using a form of echolocation.

Daniel Kish: How Can You See Without Seeing?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about Adaptation. And Chris McDougall, who we just heard from, was talking mainly about an adaptation that had to happen for the survival of our species. But for Daniel Kish, the adaptation was about his own survival.

Thanks for doing this.


RAZ: You know, I was saying you should get, like, residual checks from NPR.

KISH: Well, we'll have to make such an arrangement.

RAZ: OK, so you may have heard Daniel on NPR before. He was on an episode of Invisibilia, but in case you don't know, the story, he's been blind since he was an infant. And yet, somehow by adapting, Daniel figured out a way to see.

KISH: Yes, it is a form of seeing, but it's a form of seeing that's really quite native to the human brain.

RAZ: Daniel sees with sound.

KISH: Do you mind demonstrating what that experience is like? Like, in the room you're in? Well, this is not a room that's very well-suited to this.

RAZ: Acoustically it's...

KISH: It's a padded studio.

RAZ: It's a radio studio, yes, sorry about that.

KISH: But having said that, let me just grab something that's - happens to be here on the table.

RAZ: Great.

KISH: It's a clipboard. So I'm just going to make a shh (ph) sound. And I'm going to move this clipboard toward and away from my face, trying not to bang the microphone here - OK. Shh (ph).

RAZ: OK, what Daniel is demonstrating here, is the way sound changes depending on what's around you. And certain animals can use those sound changes to get a sense of their surroundings, it's called flash sonar or echolocation. But while bats and dolphins are born with this ability, for Daniel - for any human - it's an adaptation. Wow.

KISH: Now, the shushing isn't really conducive because it will tire you out.

RAZ: So instead of shushing, Daniel learned...

KISH: (Tongue-clicking).

RAZ: To click his tongue. And he uses these clicks to get all kinds of information. Clicks go out, the sound bounces off, say, a table, it comes back to Daniel's ears, and it helps him figure out how close the table is.

KISH: You would know there's something there, OK, don't bump into it.

RAZ: But he can also tell whether that object has a hard or soft surface.

KISH: And as I'm talking now and moving this thing toward me and away from me, you can kind of hear this - sort of a hard surface, compared to something like. What I have in front of me is absorbent.

RAZ: Daniel learned to detect those kind of small differences when he was just over a year old.

KISH: In the house, I might've discovered the curtains sounded softer than the wall. The refrigerator, you know, would've sounded different from the oven. So an infant will start to build these things up.

KISH: Very, very fast. I mean, an infant's brain is just really, really conducive to that.

RAZ: In fact, what's going on in Daniel's brain is similar to what happens in your brain when you see with your eyes. He really does get a kind of mental image of the world around him.

KISH: I refer to it as a three-dimensional, fuzzy geometry. See, you get three-dimensional representations of physical surfaces and their arrangements and layouts.

RAZ: So it is a form of seeing. And that process for Daniel, it's all about neural real estate. Basically, your brain's capacity to handle different information. And for most people, vision is what takes up a lot of that neural real estate.

KISH: Some would say as much as 40 percent of the brain is dedicated to visual processing, so that's a large chunk of brain. The computational power is already there. It's just a matter of kind of changing the input channels.

RAZ: And that's exactly what Daniel has done. He's adapted to his blindness by basically repurposing his brain ever since he was a baby, as he described on the TED stage.


KISH: I was born with bilateral retinoblastoma, retinal cancer. My right eye was removed at seven months of age. I was 13 months when they removed my left eye. The first thing I did upon awakening from that last surgery was to climb out of my crib and begin wandering around the intensive care nursery, probably looking for the one who did this to me.

RAZ: And that curiosity never really stopped. He just found a new way to keep exploring. And, of course, his parents played a pretty big role. But mostly, they did that by letting Daniel find his own way to adapt.


KISH: They understood that ignorance and fear were but matters of the mind, and the mind is adaptable. They believed that I should grow up to enjoy the same freedoms and responsibilities as everyone else. In their own words, I would move out - which I did when I was 18 - I will pay taxes - thanks - and they knew the difference between love and fear. Fear immobilizes us in the face of challenge. They knew that blindness would pose a significant challenge. I was not raised with fear. They put my freedom first before all else because that is what love does.

RAZ: For Daniel, this was the main difference between him and other blind kids. He was given the freedom to figure things out on his own. And in this way, Daniel was both pretty normal and really unusual because he was a blind kid who was raised more or less like a kid who could see.

KISH: Sighted infants learn to see from experiencing the world and by systematically withdrawing our support from the infant. We're not holding their hand for support all of this time, and we're not bringing things to them all the time because we expect that by the age of about 12 months that they're going to start taking their first steps, and we're all very happy about that. And if you're lucky, you capture it on film. That is not the way this happens for blind kids.

RAZ: Yeah.

KISH: But it is the way it happened for me.

RAZ: I mean, when you were a child, were you just sort of, like, climbing trees and, like, climbing stuff and trying to, you know, just do the things that any kid does?

KISH: (Laughter) Yeah. So I pressed hard to get into things and onto things and up things and over things, so - and, you know, it's kind of funny in a way because with blind kids, we tend to characterize blindness with immobility.

RAZ: Yeah.

KISH: And we couldn't be further from the truth because for a blind kid to act upon that sense of curiosity that tends to be natural, they have to move. They have to become very physical about their environment. And to restrict that is devastating.

RAZ: So today, Daniel spends most of his time trying to undo those restrictions. And he does this by teaching kids who are also blind how to do what he does - how to get around the world more independently. And what he's constantly telling those kids is that their social barriers are much bigger than their physical ones.


KISH: Think for a moment about your own impressions of blindness. Think about your reactions when I first came on to the stage or the prospect of your own blindness. The terror is incomprehensible to most of us because blindness is thought to epitomize ignorance and unawareness - hapless exposure to the ravages of the dark unknown - how poetic. Fortunately for me, my parents were not poetic. They were pragmatic. I was not raised to think of myself as in any way remarkable. I have always regarded myself much like anyone else who navigates the dark unknowns of their own challenges. Is that so remarkable? I do not use my eyes. I use my brain. Now someone, somewhere must think that's remarkable or I wouldn't be up here.


KISH: But let's consider this for a moment. Everyone out there who has ever faced a challenge, raise your hands. Woosh. OK. Lots of hands going up - a moment - let me do a headcount.


KISH: This'll take a while. Lots of hands in the air. Keep them up. Those of you who use your brains to navigate these challenges put your hands down. OK. Anyone with your hands still up has challenges of your own.


KISH: So we all face challenges. And we all face the dark unknown which is endemic to most challenges. Which is what most of us fear. OK. But we all have brains that activate to allow us to navigate the journey through these challenges.

RAZ: Do you think that you adapted to your blindness, or did you think that you adapted to a world that is designed for people who can see?

KISH: Both. It would be both because you adapt to your conditions. And your conditions include your characteristics as well as the characteristics around you. So a creature like a dolphin who functions mostly in the dark had to develop a way of functioning in the dark (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah.

KISH: Yeah. So they developed their sonar - same with bats. Bats, very cleverly realized - you know what? - most creatures in the world see, and don't really travel very much in the dark. So why not travel in the dark? So I guess as a - as a human who was blind I adapted to my blindness by finding a different way to see in a world that isn't really conducive to not seeing.

RAZ: I mean, it seems like you, you know, you did what humans are just kind of naturally meant to do. Right? Like, we're wired to do this - that our bodies, our minds we - we adapt to the circumstances and the challenges around us.

KISH: That's just it. One of the first critical functions of our brain is to adapt. To adapt to conditions. To understand its conditions. So if you try to contrive around that you're seriously second-guessing what the brain is capable of. So I would say that that's true. I would say that the brain is naturally inclined to adapt. And really what my - what my own circumstances did when I was younger was to - to let that play out.

RAZ: Daniel Kish. He founded World Access for the Blind. You can see his entire talk at Ted.com

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