Learning how to hear shapes

November, 2010

Researchers trained blindfolded people to recognize shapes through coded sounds, demonstrating the abstract nature of perception.

We can see shapes and we can feel them, but we can’t hear a shape. However, in a dramatic demonstration of just how flexible our brain is, researchers have devised a way of coding spatial relations in terms of sound properties such as frequency, and trained blindfolded people to recognize shapes by their sounds. They could then match what they heard to shapes they felt. Furthermore, they were able to generalize from their training to novel shapes.

The findings not only offer new possibilities for helping blind people, but also emphasize that sensory representations simply require systematic coding of some kind. This provides more evidence for the hypothesis that our perception of a coherent object ultimately occurs at an abstract level beyond the sensory input modes in which it is presented.

Reference: 

[1921] Kim, J-K., & Zatorre R. J.
(2010).  Can you hear shapes you touch?.
Experimental Brain Research. 202(4), 747 - 754.