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Man unable to 'see' numbers after suffering rare brain disease

He can't identify the numbers 2 through 9. But strangely, he can still see ones and zeros.

Schuberta et al.
  • When a man who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease corticobasal syndrome looks at the numbers 2 through 9, he sees unintelligible squiggly lines.
  • The disability appears to be a peculiar type of metamorphopsia, a visual defect that causes linear objects, like the lines on a grid, to look curvy or rounded.
  • The study has some interesting implications on theories of consciousness.

Someone writes the number 8 on a piece of paper. You look at it, see a shape, but you can't identify what number it is, or whether it's a number at all. The markings just look like "spaghetti."

It sounds strange, but that's exactly what happened to a man who suffers from a rare neurodegenerative disease called corticobasal syndrome, and now can't recognize the digits 2 through 9. This disease, caused by damage to the cortex and basal ganglia, often leads to memory problems and difficulty moving, but the inability to identify numbers seems to be a very rare symptom.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of researchers describe how the unique disability sheds light on how the brain processes visual awareness.

The inability to identify numbers posed an immediate puzzle for researchers. If the man (named "RFS" in the paper) can read letters and words, but not numbers, that means his brain must be identifying the numbers — and then selectively discriminating against them.

Johns Hopkins University - Schuberta et al.

The disability appears to be a peculiar type of metamorphopsia, a visual defect that causes linear objects, like the lines on a grid, to look curvy or rounded.

"When he looks at a digit, his brain has to 'see' that it is a digit before he can not see it -- it's a real paradox," said senior author and cognitive scientist, Michael McCloskey, in a news release. "In this paper what we did was to try to investigate what processing went on outside his awareness."

RFS was also unable to see words or drawings placed inside or near the numbers 2 through 9. For example, he wasn't able to see an image of a violin drawn inside the number 3. But when the violin was placed far enough away from the number, he was able to see it.

In an electroencephalography (EEG) experiment, the team found that even though RFS said he didn't see images placed near numbers, his brain was registering that words were there.

"He was completely unaware that a word was there, yet his brain was not only detecting the presence of a word, but identifying which particular word it was, such as 'tuba'," Harvard University cognitive scientist Teresa Schubert said in a press release.

Is it possible that RFS' disability can be explained by a psychological issue?

"Given the rare form of RFS' metamorphopsia, how can we be sure that his deficit is genuine? With any unusual deficit, there is the possibility that the underlying dysfunction is psychiatric, psychogenic, or 'functional', rather than an impairment of basic perceptual/cognitive processes," the team wrote in the paper.

"We believe this unlikely in the present case for multiple reasons … At the time of our study RFS was seeing a psychiatrist for help in adjusting to his condition, and the psychiatrist had no suspicion that any of his perceptual, cognitive, or physical symptoms reflected a functional disorder. In addition, RFS' performance in two-choice discrimination was not below chance, as is often found in cases of malingered deficits."

The research has some interesting implications for theories of consciousness. As the paper states, some theories propose that humans are able to perform "certain types of complex cognitive processes" because our consciousness interacts with deeper-level processes in the brain. But the results suggest consciousness may play less of a role, because RFS seems to be "computing complex, task-sensitive representations in the absence of awareness."

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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The key to better quality education? Make students feel valued.

Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.

Future of Learning
  • Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
  • One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
  • "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Personal Growth

Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

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