Consciousness is so deeply intertwined with everything we do, that many scientists had previously believed it would be impossible to study.
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Daniel, whose name has been changed for this article and is known in the literature simply as DB, offered some of the first clues. The participant is still perceiving, but they lack awareness of perception. One of the first tasks was to test exactly what blindsight patients are capable of without their conscious visual awareness — and the results have been quite remarkable. Of particular interest has been the fact that they can sense emotion: when presented with faces, they can tell whether it is happy or sad, angry or surprised, and they even start to unconsciously mimic the expressions.
How much of the world do we really "see"? And how many of our actions are really determined by our unconscious? Credit: Getty Images. Besides mirroring expressions, they also show physiological signs of stress when they see a picture of a frightened face. It might be helpful to notice if they are in danger, for instance.
Unlike Daniel, he was blind across the whole of his visual field, and normally walked with a white cane. But the team took away his cane and then loaded a corridor with furniture that might potentially trip him up, before asking him make his way to the other side. You can watch it for yourself, on the video below.
This video is no longer available. Importantly, the participant claimed that not only was he not aware of having seen anything; he was not even aware of having moved out of the way of the objects. He insisted he had just walked straight down the hallway. Only in very rare circumstances do they come close to being aware of what they are seeing.
But even then, he could not describe the content itself, meaning that his experience lacked almost everything we would normally associate with vision. Of all the questions these studies have posed, the most pressing has been why?
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What causes the conscious and unconscious to decouple so spectacularly? Tellingly, all the blindsight subjects had suffered damage to a region known as V1, at the back of the head, suggesting that it is this region that normally projects the stream of images into our awareness.
To test their ideas, scientists can use a form of non-invasive brain stimulation that disrupts different brain regions, in an attempt to induce a reversible form of blindsight in healthy participants. You can see a video of the procedure below. The experiment began with Allen placing a magnet over the back of my skull, just above V1. Next, he began applying the magnetic field for short intervals at increasing strengths.
At first, all I could feel was a slight tapping sensation the effect of the magnetic field on my skin but eventually I did notice a fleeting dark line crossing the centre of my vision, a bit like an old TV monitor just after you pressed the off switch. It only lasted less than a second, however, and although it gave me a small shock, I soon became used to the sensation. After Allen had found the right power, I sat in front of a computer screen, and he flashed up pictures of arrows for a split second: my job was to say whether they pointed left or right.
The pictures were sometimes timed with the TMS signals causing the temporary blindness — and like Daniel in those original experiments, I often saw nothing and felt that I was guessing. Nevertheless, once I had finished, Allen told me that I had answered many more correctly than would be expected by chance alone, suggesting the TMS had succeeded in giving me blindsight.
Eventually, the researchers may even understand how the brain creates visual consciousness itself — and why V1 is so crucial. One idea is that consciousness relies on communication to and from many areas of the brain — and maybe V1 is working as a hub that helps orchestrate that broadcast. People with blindsight cannot see what's in front of them, yet they can somehow "feel" the contents of a scene Credit: iStock. Picking apart the experience may also reveal further clues about the power of unconscious mind. To understand how, imagine that you are part of a strange puppet show.
You have been blindfolded, and your limbs are tied to invisible strings. Every so often, they are tugged here or there by a hidden puppet master, leading you through a complicated dance. That puppet show is essentially what happens when someone with blindsight navigates their way past obstacles — with the non-conscious mind acting as the puppet master.
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