In a true story that belongs on the pages of a superhero comic, 48 year-old Scottish woman Milena Canning is reportedly able to see objects, but only if they’re in motion. Bear with us here…
The claim has been verified and extensively investigated by neuroscientists at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute in Canada, confirming the extremely rare condition called Riddoch syndrome, that allows Canning to ‘see’ movement.
"She is missing a piece of brain tissue about the size of an apple at the back of her brain -- almost her entire occipital lobes, which process vision," says Culham, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Graduate Program in Neuroscience.
"In Milena's case, we think the 'super-highway' for the visual system reached a dead end. But rather than shutting down her whole visual system, she developed some 'back roads' that could bypass the superhighway to bring some vision -- especially motion -- to other parts of the brain."
In an incredible demonstration of what is possible within the human brain following devastating injury, Canning’s brain is essentially working to overcome the damage with the resources that it still has available.
"I can't see like normal people see or like I used to see. The things I'm seeing are really strange. There is something happening and my brain is trying to rewire itself or trying different pathways," Canning says.
Canning went blind at the age of 30 following a series of strokes, a coma, and a respiratory infection. To her shock, months after waking up, she reportedly saw a flash of green lightning, which ended up being the movement of a ‘sparkly gift bag’.
It is reported that subsequently she was able to see odd objects in movement, however without complete sight. “She began to perceive, sporadically, other moving things: her daughter's ponytail bobbing when she walked, but not her daughter's face; rain dripping down a window, but nothing beyond the glass; and water swirling down a drain, but not a tub already full with water.”
As a result of the study, led by neuropsychologist Jody Culham, it was identified that Canning could ‘recognise the motion, direction, size and speed’ of objects, able to react to them and catch them in motion. However the colour of the objects were not visible in Canning’s perception. Her sight was also only limited to objects in motion, as once items became stationary, Canning could not see them, including hands held directly in front of her eyes.
While an interesting case in it’s own right, the study reshapes preconceived ideas and notion on vision and blindness. "Patients like Milena give us a sense of what is possible and, even more importantly, they give us a sense of what visual and cognitive functions go together," Culham says.