By Alyson Rich
Strangely enough, no! The Marvel superhero Daredevil gained his powers when a barrel full of a radioactive chemical fell off an oncoming truck and struck him, simultaneously blinding him and giving his other senses a superhuman boost. Some parts of the comic are completely fiction, like his blindness from radioactive exposure heightening his other senses immediately. But the “radar” component that allows him to avoid stumbling over obstacles has merit.
Numerous studies have been conducted on individuals who became blind due to a brain injury to their visual cortex. The visual cortex perceives the data the eyes deliver to tell you what you are looking at. If this area is damaged, cortical blindness can occur in which your eyes still work, but you are unable to see consciously. The word “consciously” is used here because it turns out that a type of vision is still possible, called “blindsight”.
People with blindsight can detect and avoid obstacles in much the same way Daredevil does in the comics. The video clip below shows one such study in which the experimenter told a cortically blind man that they were going for a walk down a hallway. The man had never been in the hallway before and had no idea that there were any obstacles. Yet, he was able to navigate the hallway without realizing he was making any special maneuvers.
The secret to blindsight is a part of the brain called the superior colliculus, located in the midbrain. It is usually overshadowed by the visual cortex, but can still retrieve visual information from the retina, creating the blindsight phenomena.
While Daredevil himself could not possess blindsight because his blindness resulted from damage to his eyes, the underlying concept of blind people “seeing” is well founded.
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