The Synesthete Spelunker: Seeing With The Brain

From www.rochester.edu/news:

Through five separate experiments involving 129 individuals, the authors found that this eerie ability to see our hand in the dark suggests that our brain combines information from different senses to create our perceptions. The ability also “underscores that what we normally perceive of as sight is really as much a function of our brains as our eyes,” says first author Kevin Dieter, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The study seems to confirm anecdotal reports that spelunkers in lightless caves often are able to see their hands. In other words, the “spelunker illusion,” as one blogger dubbed it, is likely not an illusion after all….

Across all types of participants, about half detected the motion of their own hand and they did so consistently, despite the expectations created with the faux holes. And very few subjects saw motion when the experimenter waved his hand, underscoring the importance of self-motion in this visual experience. As measured by the eye tracker, subjects who reported seeing motion were also able to smoothly track the motion of their hand in darkness more accurately than those who reported no visual sensation—46 percent versus 20 percent of the time.

Reports of the strength of visual images varied widely among participants, but synesthetes were strikingly better at not just seeing movement, but also experiencing clear visual form. As an extreme example in the eye tracking experiment, one synesthete exhibited near perfect smooth eye movement—95 percent accuracy—as she followed her hand in darkness. In other words, she could track her hand in total darkness as well as if the lights were on.

“You can’t just imagine a target and get smooth eye movement,” explains [University of Rochester professor David] Knill. “If there is no moving target, your eye movements will be noticeably jerky.”