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Coming to Our Senses: A Boy Who Learned to See, a Girl Who Learned to Hear, and How We All Discover the World

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What would it be like to see clearly after a childhood of near blindness? Or to hear for the first time?   Since understanding what we see and hear comes so naturally to most of us, we assume that our senses developed spontaneously in infancy—that gaining sight or hearing later in life would be like turning on a light switch or a sound system. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The real story is far more interesting and inspiring, with much to teach us all about the way that we perceive the world.

In COMING TO OUR SENSES: A Boy Who Learned to See, a Girl Who Learned to Hear, and How We All Discover the World (Basic Books; June 8, 2021), Susan Barry draws on the stories of two remarkable young adults to show how our brains process raw stimuli into meaning, why ‘gaining a new sense’ requires a fundamental reorganization of the brain, and how our past experiences and personal predilections influence our future observations and growth. While adapting to a new sense after childhood is immensely difficult, it’s not impossible—in the same way that adult athletes continue to train after their brains and bodies are mature, it is possible to become an “athlete of perception.”

Liam McCoy was 15 when a surgical procedure addressed several conditions that had left him nearly blind since early childhood. But instead of seeing his family, friends, and everyday objects within a three-dimensional landscape, he saw a hodgepodge of lines and colors on one flat plane. Zohra Damji was 12 when a cochlear implant enabled her to hear for the first time. But all sounds—voices, a car motor, the rain—merged into one unintelligible cacophony.

A decade later, McCoy and Damji have adapted to their new sense and are both accomplished young adults; Damji is the first deaf person to earn a medical degree in her native Tanzania, a feat which required her to learn a second language. Having come to know each of them and their families very well,and having experienced her own late-life sensory awakening (as chronicled in her first book, Fixing My Gaze, and by Oliver Sacks in The Mind’s Eye), Barry was able to tell their stories from both a scientific and personal perspective. COMING TO OUR SENSES invites readers to “see” themselves in a whole new way.

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