Marina Bedny - The role of cortical pluripotency in human cognition
From Steven Marzec
Humans are unique among animals not only in their shared cognitive capacities but also in their remarkable adaptability to diverse environments. Studies with people born blind provide insights into the mechanisms of human flexibility. Contrary to the suppositions of early empiricist philosophers, blind and sighted people share rich ‘visual' knowledge, including knowledge of color, light and visual perception, demonstrating the power of social, linguistic and inferential learning, which enables humans to go far beyond the senses. On the other hand, evidence from blindness reveals the remarkable flexibility of the human cortex. ‘Visual’ occipital cortices appear to serve drastically different cognitive functions across sighted and congenitally blind people: visual perception in the sighted, higher-order cognition in people born blind. This pattern suggests ‘wetware pluripotency’ at birth i.e., the same cortical tissue can assume drastically different functions in the face of different experience. Finally, I will discuss evidence from Braille as a case study of how culture reuses cortical architecture, including connectivity for ‘unintended’ purposes. Blindness is just one example of the human brain adapting to change, supporting cultural inventions such as reading, math and computer programming. There is no ‘normal’ brain, instead, we are born with a protobrain that is built to learn and adapt to our particular environment.