Eyes on Tails

How Blind Tadpoles Learned to See

– and Why It Means You Can Learn to Feel Better (especially when you thought it was impossible).

So Nature is pretty weird ‘n’ wonderful. In a recent study of “I’m sorry, some scientists decided to do what ?”, scientists grafted eye tissue to blind tadpoles. To their tails, in fact. While the eyes never connected directly to the brain (which is how people – and tadpoles – normally process vision), the tadpoles did indeed learn to tell the difference between two different colours. Similar blind tadpoles without the grafted eyes didn’t learn.

Now you may ask what this has to do with you feeling better. Fair question. After all, you’re not a tadpole (though a few weeks into life you did look suspiciously like one).

This is about brain plasticity (ps many thanks to Jane W for getting me into brain plasticity research!). And brain plasticity is all about the brain being non-local. Bear with me here. We used to be taught that Section X of the brain learned how to do Thing X, and Section Y of the brain was in charge of Thing Y. New Science, though, is discovering that while the brain likes storing things in one section (like some people like putting all of their CDs in one binder), it’s got backups. Plenty of backups. Myriad backups. So it’s like you keeping your CDs in the binder by the CD player, and also having them downloaded on your computer to listen to. And your phone. And a cloud backup. Which you can access from, well, pretty much anywhere.

Even better than that, though, it means that your brain can learn from anywhere. Brain plasticity means that if one part of your brain can’t do something, another part can step in and learn it just fine. Brain plasticity has shown us that even though a stroke decimated the parts of the brain in charge of walking and talking, a person can re-learn how to walk and talk, without those parts of the brain. It’s shown us that people whose eyes do not know how to see can learn to see through their tongues. I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up. In fact, if you want more fun brain plasticity facts, check out The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD.

So let’s be honest here folks. You don’t know how to get over a recurring chest infection…or an old slight that won’t leave your memory….or that trick knee from high school? I understand that you feel it’s normal. I understand that you feel you’re stuck with it. I do. But if a blind person can learn to see with their tongue, and a tadpole can see with their tail….well let’s just say I’m no longer putting any limits on what you can do when you’re given the chance.

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