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How Can Going Blind Give You Vision?

Jan 19, 2017

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Five Senses

About Isaac Lidsky's TED Talk

Isaac Lidsky lost his sight by age 25. Now, he says, losing his eyesight was a blessing — because it taught him that he is in control of his own reality.

About Isaac Lidsky

Isaac Lidsky runs a construction company in Florida. He graduated Harvard in math and computer science and then added a law degree. He clerked for US Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and argued a dozen cases in federal court on behalf of the US Justice Department. Earlier, he was a child television star.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So before we get started, you were the guy who played Weasel Wyzell on "Saved By The Bell"?

ISAAC LIDSKY: That's right.

RAZ: Would you call that, like, the pinnacle of your achievements?

LIDSKY: I would call that an awful television show...

RAZ: (Laughter).

LIDSKY: ...That I had a lot of fun being on.

RAZ: Did you continue to act after that role?

LIDSKY: No. So around this time, by my mid-to-late teens, my sight was becoming a substantial nuisance. Probably by my early 20s it was a disability, and by the time I was 25 I was blind.

RAZ: Isaac Lidsky might have been on track to turn a successful run as a child actor into a lifelong thing, but at age 13 he was diagnosed with a genetic disease that caused the cells in his retina to progressively die off.

LIDSKY: So progressive deterioration of your sight and ultimately blindness. Sitting in the car on the way home from that doctor's office, I knew that blindness was going to completely ruin my life.

RAZ: You thought that at age 13?

LIDSKY: I didn't think it, I knew it. I knew it. It was my reality.

RAZ: But blindness didn't ruin Isaac's life. In fact, he ended up graduating from Harvard, he got a law degree, even worked for two different Supreme Court justices. And today, he runs his own successful business. But back when he was a kid, to see that path forward, Isaac had to grapple with what it meant not to see at all. Here's Isaac Lidsky on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LIDSKY: What does it feel like to see? You open your eyes and there's the world. Seeing is believing, sight is truth, right? Well, that's what I thought. Then from age 12 to 25, my sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions. Objects appeared morphed and disappeared in my reality. It was difficult and exhausting to see. I pieced together fragmented transitory images until I saw nothing at all. I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain.

Let me explain with a bit of amateur neuroscience. Your visual cortex takes up about 30 percent of your brain, that's compared to approximately 8 percent for touch, and 2 to 3 percent for hearing. Sight is one-third of your brain by volume, and can claim about two-thirds of your brain's processing resources. It's no surprise then that the illusion of sight is so compelling. Well, make no mistake about it, sight is an illusion. A hill appears steeper if you've just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you're wearing a heavy backpack. You create your own reality, and you believe it. I believed mine until it broke apart. The deterioration of my eyes shattered the illusion.

You see, sight is just one way we shape our reality. We create our own realities in many other ways. Let's take fear as just one example. Your fears distort your reality. Psychologists have a great term for it - awfulizing, right? Fear replaces the unknown with the awful. When I was diagnosed with my blinding disease, I knew blindness was a death sentence for my independence. It was the end of achievement for me. Blindness meant I would live an unremarkable life, small and sad and likely alone. I knew it. This was a fiction borne of my fears, but I believed it. If I had not confronted the reality of my fear, I would have lived it, I am certain of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So how did your reality change?

LIDSKY: So, you know, I tell the story of the first time that I visited with a low vision and, you know, and blind occupational therapist - a vision rehabilitation specialist. And she started to talk about all these practical solutions for discrete problems, and in the back of my mind I was actually a bit frustrated.

RAZ: You were thinking, yeah, I don't really want to hear this.

LIDSKY: Yeah. You know, yes, I bump into things, yes, maybe I should learn to use a cane, but, you know, that's almost arbitrary. Like, I'm here to talk about blindness, this amorphous bogeyman that's going to ruin my life. You know, I'm not here to talk about these practical details. And then it really hit me that there is no amorphous bogeyman. There is no overarching, you know, doom and gloom. All it is is these practical problems that she wants to talk about, and that was a major change for me.

I decided right there that whenever I felt afraid, I'd ask myself two questions - what precisely is my problem, and what precisely can I do about it? You know, I knew blindness was going to ruin my life, but that was a reality that I was choosing, that my mind had created for me, and I was choosing to believe. And I decided to make another choice.

RAZ: You know, vision - right? - I mean, it's such a powerful and dominant sense. I mean, it overpowers our other senses.

LIDSKY: Well, there's no doubt that we are inherently visual creatures, and it dominates our mental capacity and our processing power. And in some ways it does that I think to our great detriment, you know, at least in a couple ways. There's a lot more going on in the world around us than light striking the photoreceptor cells of our retinas, but we are built to certainly devote, you know, an inordinate share of our attention to that light.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIDSKY: At the end of the day, our photoreceptor cells respond to about one-ten-trillionth of the spectrum of light in the world around us. And from that one-ten-trillionth of light flying around, our brains concoct this scenario that implicates our memories, our opinions, our emotions, our experiences, sort of conceptually how we understand that world. And then we believe that that is what the world, quote, unquote, "looks like."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIDSKY: The assumption we make is that the entire point of our visual system, the way it's constructed, you know, its goals are to represent the world around us accurately.

RAZ: Yeah

LIDSKY: It turns out, science is starting to show us, that that's not true. The point of sight is to be useful to us in the same evolutionary way that we endeavor to, you know, fulfill objectives of, you know, procreation and survival. So the system isn't even designed to represent the information accurately, it's designed to be helpful in the evolutionary goals.

RAZ: How much of our reality, of what we see, is an illusion?

LIDSKY: So I would argue all of it. To me, it's more about choosing what reality you want to live for yourself. So this really was the profound insight that really made losing my sight a great blessing in my life. I felt I was living a race against the clock, a race against time, a race against blindness until I decided to really take control of my own reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LIDSKY: My point today is not about my blindness, however, it's about my vision. Going blind taught me to live my life eyes wide open. It is a learned discipline. It can be taught. It can be practiced. I'll summarize very briefly. Hold yourself accountable for every moment, every thought, every detail. See beyond your fears, they are your excuses, rationalizations, shortcuts, justifications, your surrender. Choose to see through them, choose to let them go. You are the creator of your reality. With that empowerment comes complete responsibility. I chose to step out of fear's tunnel into terrain uncharted and undefined. I chose to build there a blessed life, far from alone with Dorothy, my beautiful wife, with our triplets whom we call the tripskies (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

LIDSKY: ...And with the latest addition to the family, sweet baby Clementine. Helen Keller said that the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision. For me, going blind was a profound blessing because blindness gave me vision. I hope you can see what I see. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Isaac Lidsky, his book about this is called "Eyes Wide Open." You can see his full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.