Chapter Three—Gathering Assumptions

Paul’s invention is, in actuality, two basic inventions—the second of which can be directly attributed to one of those legendary “Ahah!” moments experienced by one of its co-inventors, Mitchell Tyler. While he was on his way to work one morning, the bus he was on suddenly skidded due to a patch of unnoticed ice on the road. The skid, plus the fact that he was nursing a cold manifested into a temporary but very real experience of vertigo. Here’s Mitch telling me about what would become a life-changing experience for himself and countless others, in his own words… Note: Mitch was still referring to what would become the BrainPort a few months later as the “Tongue Display Unit”:

About a month after meeting Cheryl, Mitch and Paul’s other cohorts, he called and asked me and my videocam to join him on to a trip the Milwaukee campus of University of Wisconsin. He would be demonstrating what was now a workable prototype of Paul’s initial invention — A Tongue Display Unit that allowed blind people to see – through their tongue. And the blind young man who would be trying it—for the first time—was famous in his own right. Here’s a clip from that encounter.

As they were being developed, both were referred to as Tongue Display Units with one major difference. Although the second device was conceived of as a balance prosthetic, Paul’s original invention was conceived of as a vision prosthetic. Calling them both TDU’s was a natural linear extension of their development. But in doing so, as I would later discover, it unknowingly disguised a fundamental functional difference between the two devices – a difference that would change the relationship between the two devices from a Delicious vs. Golden apple distinction into an apple-orange distinction. Of course they did have one thing in common. They were both Human Machine interfaces. Or were they Brain/Machine Interfaces? Is there a difference? Or is it just an either/or semantic choice? Here’s Paul Bach-y-Rita himself explaining how the devices worked that very first day we re-connected:

You heard Paul trip over the statement. I heard him too, as I was videotaping him on that first day … and that little stumble started me on my own subliminal quest. Was it a Human/Machine Interface? Or a Brain/Machine Interface? Back then there was no doubt in any rational neuroscientist’s mind. Of course it was the latter. In fact, one day, a neuroscientist named Norman Doidge visited us in Paul’s lab, and I watched him type away on his laptop as he watched Cheryl go through her amazing changes on the device. (Somewhere I have a videotape of him typing and watching. Good typist. Fast.) What he saw that day became Chapter One of his runaway best-seller called “THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF”. It’s still being hawked even by PBS along with a big-dollar documentary about the marvels of the brain as a bonus if you subscribe to their Network.


And I’d use bigger font to type that word “BUT”, I trust you’ll soon get my point, even with this little one…

Things have changed since that lucky fellow Doidge visited us… And My! Oh! My! What a change it is…

It may just be, that the brain, as undeniably marvelous a mechanism as it has become since it it first appeared in the development of living beings, and continues to become, since humans started manipulating it with things like words and concepts* isn’t really as all-powerful as Doidge makes it out to be. It may be more like ” the Great Oz behind the curtain”. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for the big show actor Frank Morgan was capable of putting on as “The Great OZ” in that little gem of a movie, “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. BUT, some “New Guys” on the scene are now agreeing with what one or two “Old Guys” on the scene have been saying for years. Simply put, much like “The GreatOz” was “just a human”, the brain is (sorry, folks) “just a piece of meat”.

A growing number of “New Guys”are now agreeing with the “Old Guys” that what may be at work as you read this sentence, is not just your brain and your eyes. I say this because a month after Paul and I got together, I built him a website and the headline on it was a now famous quote of Dr. Bach-y-Rita’s :”We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brain…” Turns out Paul was wrong. And so is Norman Doidge. We don’t “see with our brain”, and no brain can “change itself”. Except maybe in a ’50’s sci-fi B movie. (See “Donavan’s Brain” co-starring our former First Lady Nancy Davis Reagan.)

Every organ — in fact, every part of the human body is dependent on the totality of the organism to function. Legs don’t walk — people walk. Likewise brains don’t think — people think. And eyes don’t see — anymore than brains do… One can take this as far as one wishes with ears, and noses, and stomachs and lungs and, for that matter, the whole central nervous system. It is living beings – animal and human – that are disposed – that have the power – to do these things – not their individual parts. And it goes much deeper than that with humans.

*The story of Helen Keller is a classic example of this. Due to an illness as a child, she lived her early years with little more than the instincts of an animal, until a brilliant and compassionate teacher named Annie O’Sullivan came along. Here’s a video clip I put together of my friend Professor David Bohm talking about the role our generally “instinctive” understanding of the concept of “a concept” played in the course of her development into a fully functioning human being. (With a deep bow to Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke for their extraordinary performances in “The Miracle Worker”)

PS: A hint of things to come: The Brain doesn’t “change itself” as Norman Doidge claims. It’s the other way around—The Self changes its brain.