This American Life: #544: Batman
January 12, 2015 2:19 PM - Subscribe

The Invisibilia preview roadshow continues! Can other people's expectations of you alter what you can do physically? Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller of NPR's new radio show and podcast Invisibilia investigate that question – specifically, they look into something that sounds impossible: if people's expectations can change whether a blind man can see.

NPR Science reporters Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explain to Ira Glass how they smuggled a rat into NPR headquarters in Washington, and ran an unscientific version of a famous experiment first done by Psychology Professor Robert Rosenthal. It showed how people’s thoughts about rats could affect their behavior. Another scientist, Carol Dweck, explains that it’s true for people too: expectations affect students, children, soldiers, in measurable ways.

ACT ONE: Batman Begins.
Lulu tells the story of Daniel Kish, who’s blind, but can navigate the world by clicking with his tongue. This gives him so much information about what’s around him, he does all sorts of things most blind people don’t. Most famously, he rides a bike. We learn why he was raised so differently from the way most blind kids are brought up, and how the book The Making of Blind Men by Robert Scott changes everything for him.

ACT TWO: The Dark Knight Rises.
Daniel Kish says that through clicking, he forms mental pictures. He actually sees. A neuroscientist Lore Thaler explains how that might be possible. Daniel goes on a mission to teach other blind people to see the way he does. (23 minutes)
posted by jazon (7 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been resisting it, but this and the most recent Radiolab episode finally made me say "OK" and subscribe to Invisibilia. Worth seeing what comes, I think.

That being said, some of the "visual cortexes are so amazing EVEN IN BLIND PEOPLE" talk I found a little contrived, given that I remember learning some of those same "wow"s on an episode of PBS's Scientific American Frontiers about 10 years ago. (TLDR: Blind people show visual cortex activity for pattern recognition, reading braille, etc. If you disable their visual cortex with electricity, they mess up more. A sighted person, having been blindfolded for some short period of time—maybe a week?—will start showing re-purposing of the visual cortex for touch/braille patterning, even in that short time. Cool, right?)
posted by Zephyrial at 6:13 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

This episode was mind-blowing to me. I had no idea about any of this. The most I ever figured is that heightened other senses help blind people to negotiate their way around confidently. But the stuff about the active visual cortex and the clicks was just amazing.
posted by crossoverman at 1:37 AM on January 13, 2015

NPR is pushing Invisibilia really hard. at this rate I won't have to subscribe to it though, because next week On the Media will do a preview of it, followed by Wait Wait doing their preview of it the following week, then Bulls-eye will get in on it.
posted by garlic at 8:06 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a publication for disabled people, and the deaf community just flat out ignored us, because many members of the deaf community do not consider themselves disabled. In their daily experience, what they experience isn't the disability we think it is -- they communicate just fine, they have systems for supplementing their experience so that they have other signals for the sorts of thing we rely on hearing for. So many of them see their issues as mostly that of being a language minority -- their biggest issue is often in dealing with hearing people, in part because hearing people have such a hard time communicating with deaf people, in part because hearing people are often so ignorant about the deaf experience.

There was also a percentage of the blind community that had little to do with us. I never really knew the details, except that there were blind people who used seeing eye dogs and those that didn't, but used canes instead. I did know that the cane-users were very much against developing a learned helplessness, but instead insisting on doing as much as they could by themselves. It hadn't occurred to me before listening to this episode that there might be those in that community who likewise don't really consider themselves disabled, but instead to have a different mechanism for seeing.

It was really interesting. At the very least, it reminded me not to assume I know what other people's experiences are, not to presume I know what they need from me, if anything.
posted by maxsparber at 8:19 AM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Neat episode but the contrived shouting from the rooftops...come on y'all. The science is interesting enough.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:34 PM on January 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah the rooftops thing. Yeah.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:02 PM on January 14, 2015

This episode just felt longer than it needed to be. I would have been more interested in other examples of people who were told they couldn't do something and they went out and did it anyway.
posted by inturnaround at 6:30 PM on January 17, 2015

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