I came upon a story about an amazing boy today. It’s not a new story; the article I was reading was from 2007, but I wanted to share it because it is an incredible example of brain plasticity at work.
This boy, Ben Underwood, had eye cancer as a toddler. When he was two, he had to have both eyes removed. His mother, Aquanetta, raised him to believe that he could still see–just that he had to use his other senses.
So far, this story isn’t much different from that of many other blind children. But this boy did something pretty unique–he learned to use echolocation (using sound bouncing off objects, just like bats use when hunting bugs) to “see” the world around him. In this way, he could navigate the world highly successfully without a cane or help from others. He could even use sound to “see” details, like whether or not a car had its trunk open.
Now, most of us can’t do that. Our brains aren’t wired to do it. But Ben gradually taught himself how to do it; he wired his brain for echolocation, constantly strengthening those pathways that related to sound reflection until he had mastered the skill. Over time, a large area of his brain must have become devoted to echolocation. Compare that to the “normal” human brain, which likely has very little space dedicated to this skill–certainly not with the precision Ben’s was.
I say “was” because Ben died in his late teens last year after another bout with cancer. To read more about this boy’s amazing ability, click here for an article about Ben and his mother Aquanetta Gordon, or here for the website dedicated to Ben.
If you look, there are lots of stories about the astonishing ability of our brains to learn to do unique, wonderful things through brain plasticity. Ben Underwood’s is a particularly inspiring and hopeful one.