Like me, you’ve probably found yourself making love to five gorgeous supermodels at once, only to have their rock star boyfriends all charge into the room at once and throw their tiny dogs at you, only to swat the canine projectiles away without really looking at them or stopping what you’re doing.
In such cases, the ability to deflect the pooch missiles is just one example of “blindsight,” a type of subconscious “seeing” that science is just beginning to comprehend. In one recent experiment, a man who was left blind by two strokes was able to navigate a hallway obstacle course despite the fact that he couldn’t actually see any of the obstacles.
Turns out, some of us can see even when we can’t see:
Scientists have long known that the brain digests what comes through the eyes using two sets of circuits. Cells in the retina project not only to the visual cortex — the destroyed regions in this man — but also to subcortical areas, which in T. N. were intact. These include the superior colliculus, which is crucial in eye movements and may have other sensory functions; and, probably, circuits running through the amygdala, which registers emotion.
Past experiments with patients similar to T.N. showed that they would cringe when shown pictures of scared people, even though they could not consciously see anything in front of them.
Blindsight is just one of the functions the brain performs throughout your day without your knowledge. It is what allows you to drive on a highway and avoid that car veering into your lane from the left despite the fact that you’re in the middle of a text message and reprogramming the radio presets simultaneously. In sports, blindsight is what allows baseball players to hit fastballs at 100 miles per hour — despite the fact that human reaction times are simply not capable of doing so.
I suspect blindsight has a social angle too, as it prevents some people from telling their co-workers that there are huge dollops of cream cheese hanging from their beards at the Tuesday morning staff meeting. Man, blindsight can be really hilarious.