During the 1970s, while bell-bottoms roamed the earth and The Dark Side of the Moon played on records, scientists were communicating images directly to the brains of blind people. What's more, they were intelligible images.

Recently there have been astonishing advances in neurotechnology. They are accomplishments in their own right, but they didn't come out of the blue. There's a long history of scientists making physical connections between machines and the brain. All the way back in the 1970s, they used machines to make blind people see.


We take in light with our eyes but we "see" with our brain. Our brains are what tell us a conglomeration of shapes is a flower, or that a group of features is our mother's face and not the face of a stranger. Our brain can also make us see things that aren't there. Parallel lines seem to converge. Static images seem to move. Lights that don't exist outside our minds glow.


The generalized term for light we see, but which never enters our eye, is phosphene. Phosphenes can be as simple as seeing stars when you sneeze, or when you gently press on your eyelids. Those are usually the result of pressure on the retina. Scientists eventually decided to go to the source. In 1968, they jammed electrodes directly into a man's visual cortex. The visual cortex is the part of the brain right at the back of the skull as far away from the eyes as it could get. It's like it was put there to emphasize how little seeing has to do with the eyes. After the scientists sent pulses through the electrodes, the man reported seeing dots and bars, a little like morse code.

The idea of morse code wasn't lost on the scientists. By 1974, people had worked out how to make the dots so precises that the dots looked like a kind of Braille. They could send visual Braille messages directly to the brain. After some practice, subjects managed to read the messages as well as they read Braille. All the way back in the 1970s, scientists could beam messages into someone's head.

Top Image: D Pham

[Via Plasticity in Sensory Systems, Braille Reading by a Blind Volunteer By Visual Cortex Stimulation, The Sensations Produced by Electrical Stimulation of the Visual Cortex.]