What Happens When You Lose a Sense? The Science Behind Super Senses
March 01, 2019
Anyone else freaked out by Bird Box (raises hand)? Learn what really happens when you lose a sense.
Netflix may be doing more than just entertaining viewers - some movies are teaching them, too. In the newly released Netflix Original, Bird Box, Sandra’s Bullock character does just that.
Without giving away any spoilers (but if you haven't seen it...what are you waiting for?!), the film follows a family who must remain blindfolded to avoid fatality. Viewers soon learn that Sandra Bullock’s on-screen children have developed a heightened sense of hearing due to their lack of vision. Pretty crazy, right? Well, this isn’t the first time the idea of “super senses” has been discovered.
Scientists refer to this phenomenon as cross-modal neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to rewire senses when one is removed. So, why does this happen and how long has it been going on? Here’s everything you should know about super senses.
The History of Cross-Modal Neuroplasticity
The discovery of cross-modal neuroplasticity was somewhat of an accident. Michael Merzenich, a researcher from UC San Francisco, set out to prove the contrary. He believed that each part of the brain had a fixed function. Thus, if a sense was lost, it would not be able to adapt. To his surprise, he learned that the brain was incredibly flexible. In fact, it could completely rewire the senses to counteract the deficit. So, how did this phenomenon work? The process can be complex, but let’s break it down into a more digestible explanation:
Simply put, the brain is made up of a network of neurons (also known as cells that transmit signals). Neurons create connections within this network that allow us to perform certain activities. For example, one string of connected neurons may help you recall last week’s episode of your favorite TV show while another may help you remember the lyrics to your favorite song. When a sense is lost, these connections are broken. But, the brain will attempt to modify them and create new connections to mimic the previous one. It’s important to note that these networks are strengthened through experience. So, the more you perform certain activities, the stronger the connections will become.
Think of it like singing your favorite song. The more you sing, the more words you understand and remember the second time around. Think that’s impressive? The brain is pretty good at blowing our minds.
Super Senses in Real Life
While this phenomenon may sound unworldly, you likely know people who have already experienced it. One of the most historical figures to embrace cross-modal neuroplasticity is the musician, Ray Charles. In fact, some even call it “the Ray Charles effect” (although, modern day TV-watchers may now call it “the Bird Box effect”). Although Charles was blind, his brain rewired his senses to heighten his auditory skills. The result? A world-class musician and pioneer of soul music. Learning to play the piano without vision is no easy feat. Often, Charles would have to use one hand to read the braille sheet music while pressing the keys with the other. This inconvenience in practice led him to master the art of memorization in short periods of time. In this case, Charles’ auditory senses were greatly heightened through immersive experiences at the St. Augustine School for the deaf and blind. There, he was challenged each day to build upon new, auditory connections in his brain.
Another famous face of cross-modal neuroplasticity may be the star of one of your favorite TV shows. Marlee Matlin (also known as Jodi Lerner on The L Word and Jocelyn Turner on Quantico) lost her hearing as an infant. Since then, she’s learned to focus on body movement to better understand communication. In an interview, Matlin shared “facial expressions and body language can be as important as dialogue.” Matlin’s lack of auditory skill has been compensated through new, visual connections in her brain’s neural network.
The cross-modal neuroplasticity phenomenon is redefining sensory impairments as we know them. In fact, they may not be “impairments” at all. For now, we’ll keep calling them “super senses” (because let’s face it, that sounds way cooler).