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My family knows I read everything I can get my hands on about the brain.  Recently, at the grocery store, my  six-year-old daughter plucked a magazine from the rack and tossed it in the cart. “You need to read that Mommy,” she ordered. The magazine was  the BBC Science Focus edition of The Amazing Brain.  $14 is more than I usually shell out for a magazine, but the moment was so adorable and the topic was the brain after all!

Thumbing through the pages I stumbled on a brief paragraph about a phenomenon called “blindsight.”  When visual information strikes the retina of the eye it is transported via the optic nerve to the brain for processing.  The occipital lobe, which lies at the back of your head, right where you might lay your hand when cradling a baby’s head, transforms these electrical messages into sight.  Injury to this lobe can result in distortions in how one sees the world – things might appear too short, or too fat, blurry or double for example. If the occipital lobe did not function at all, blindness would result.

But does that mean a person with a non-functioning occipital lobe cannot see at all?

The phenomenon of blindsight provides an alternate method of “seeing.”  While most of the fibers of the optic nerve arrive at the occipital lobe, they first pass through a way-station called the thalamus. The thalamus sends most of these signals on to the visual cortex of the occipital lobe, but a small portion are diverted to the parietal lobe.  This lobe helps you discern objects by touch alone.  It also subconsciously orients you towards a target – for example a speeding baseball or tennis ball.  When the visual fibers arrive here, a person is able to “see”  without actually seeing.  

A blindsighter can know where an object is, without actually seeing it.  Some blindsighters can even recognize faces, discern colors and point to objects in a room.

People with normal vision can also benefit from blindsight, although their use of this hidden talent may be entirely subconscious.  While someone who is visually impaired might learn to develop these neural pathways more consciously than other people, I have an idea that everyone could benefit from developing the art of seeing without seeing.

I wonder if blindsight explains the phenomenon of intuition to some degree. Wikipedia describes intuition as “the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired.” (emphasis mine). Defined by Sophy Burnham as, “a subtle knowing without ever having any idea why you know it.” It makes perfect sense that we might learn to draw on parts of our subconscious brain in a similar way that a blindsighter does. 

The idea that intuition can be explained does not lessen it’s impact. A highly developed intuition is deemed invaluable for success in many endeavors. Read Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and you will find this intriguing quote:

“The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Perhaps knowledge of the physiology of this inner knowing can provide us with more concrete training to develop this potent tool for success.

Intuition is generally regarded as a right brained activity involving the frontal lobe. We know that impaired firing of the frontal cortex can lead to depression, whereas increased firing of the right frontal lobe increases creativity and emotions, such as hunches.

While I am convinced that intuition is far more complex, and likely involves multiple regions of the brain, I have a hunch that people who develop intuitive skills are not only successful but also happier.  

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