A Boy Who Learned to See, a Girl Who Learned to Hear, and How We All Discover the World
Susan R. Barry
What would it be like to see clearly after a childhood of near blindness? Or to hear for the first time? Since understanding what we see and hear comes so naturally to most of us, we assume that our senses developed spontaneously in infancy—that gaining sight or hearing later in life would be like turning on a light switch or a sound system. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The real story is far more interesting and inspiring, with much to teach us all about the way that we perceive the world.
With her latest book Coming To Our Senses: A Boy Who Learned to See, a Girl Who Learned to Hear, and How We All Discover the World , neurobiologist Susan R. Barry draws on the stories of two remarkable young adults to show how our brains process raw stimuli into meaning, why ‘gaining a new sense’ requires a fundamental reorganization of the brain, and how our past experiences and personal predilections influence our future observations and growth. Her conclusions suggest that while adapting to a new sense after childhood is immensely difficult, it’s not impossible—in the same way that adult athletes continue to train after their brains and bodies are mature, it is possible to become an “athlete of perception.”
Liam McCoy was 15 when a surgical procedure addressed several conditions that had left him nearly blind since early childhood. But instead of seeing his family, friends, and everyday objects within a three-dimensional landscape, he saw a hodgepodge of lines and colors on one flat plane. Zohra Damji was 12 when a cochlear implant enabled her to hear for the first time. But all sounds—voices, a car motor, the rain—merged into one unintelligible cacophony.
Susan Barry, having come to know each of them and their families and having experienced her own sensory awakening, as chronicled in her first book, Fixing My Gaze, is uniquely positioned to tell their amazing stories from both a scientific and personal perspective. As moving as it is illuminating, Coming To Our Senses invites readers to “see” ourselves in a whole new way.
Praise for Coming To Our Senses
Even science-savvy readers will find surprises in this insightful exploration of how two humans learned a new sense.
Barry skillfully balances scientific explanations with empathetic stories of how senses shape the human experience … This powerful tale is as thoughtful as it is informative.
What would happen if you had a new sense grafted on your body? Sue Barry is alert to the many fascinating details of how Liam and Zohra navigated their new sensory experiences, essentially giving the reader a lab course in experimental philosophy. This moving work of biography and scholarship explores the deep questions that arise when people choose to live in bodies that have been made new and strange.
―Michael Chorost, author of, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human