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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 3

How Blind People Detect Light

Light triggers a quick neural reaction even in blind people

The presence of light may do more for us than merely allow for sight. A study by Gilles Vandewalle and his colleagues at the University of Montreal suggests that light affects important brain functions—even in the absence of vision.

Previous studies have found that certain photoreceptor cells located in the retina can detect light even in people who do not have the ability to see. Yet most studies suggested that at least 30 minutes of light exposure is needed to significantly affect cognition via these nonvisual pathways. Vandewalle's study, which involved three completely blind participants, found that just a few seconds of light altered brain activity, as long as the brain was engaged in active processing rather than at rest.

First the experimenters asked their blind subjects whether a blue light was on or off, and the subjects answered correctly at a rate significantly higher than random chance—even though they confirmed they had no conscious perception of the light. Using functional MRI, the researchers then determined that less than a minute of blue light exposure triggered changes in activity in regions of their brain associated with alertness and executive function. Finally, the scientists found that if the subjects received simultaneous auditory stimulation, a mere two seconds of blue light was enough to modify brain activity. The researchers think the noise engaged active sensory processing, which allowed the brain to respond to the light much more quickly than in previous studies when subjects rested while being exposed to light.

The results confirm that the brain can detect light in the absence of working vision. They also suggest that light can quickly alter brain activity through pathways unrelated to sight. The researchers posit that this nonvisual light sensing may aid in regulating many aspects of human brain function, including sleep/wake cycles and threat detection.

This article was originally published with the title "No Vision Necessary to “See” Light."

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