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Magic Touch

A blind painter recreates his world through touch.

Esref Armagan © Zafer Kizilkaya/Images & Stories

During his first five years of life, light and dark helped him navigate his world. Then, his blindness became complete. Yet even as his sight quenched, Esref Armagan drew, using touch to capture the external world, then re-creating those mental images in sand, his fingers tracing the edges to make sure the pictures matched those in his brain.

Today, Armagan renders his mental representations onto paper fixed to a rubberized tablet. His fingers are guided by his pencil’s depressions, allowing him to produce an image resembling the one his brain has built.

To investigate how this artist’s brain constructs a visual world from touch alone, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, an HMS professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and colleagues turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging. As expected, as Armagan drew, the frontal–parietal region of his cortex became active—this area is known to transform perception into two-dimensional imagery and to coordinate sensory–motor information in sighted and nonsighted artists alike. What surprised the researchers was the robust activity in Armagan’s occipital cortex, a region devoted to visual processing.

These findings suggest to Pascual-Leone that the occipital cortex plays a key role in supporting mental representations—even without the aid of vision.

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