Hearing Gloves and Seeing Tongues? Disability, Sensory Substitution and the Origins of the Neuroplastic Subject

Body and Society 28 (1-2):180-208 (2022)
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Researchers in post-war industrial laboratories such as Bell Labs and the Smith-Kettlewell Institute pioneered solutions to compensate for sensory loss through so-called sensory substitution systems, premised on an assumption of cortical and sensory plasticity. The article tracks early discussions of plasticity in psychology literature from William James, acknowledged by Wiener, but explicitly developed by Bach-y-Rita and his collaborators. After discussing the conceptual foundations of the principles of sensory substitution, two examples are discussed. First, ‘Project Felix’ was an experiment in vibrotactile communication by means of ‘hearing gloves’ for the deaf at Norbert Wiener’s laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demonstrated to Helen Keller in 1950. Second, the tactile-visual sensory substitution system for the blind pioneered by Paul Bach-y-Rita from 1968 onwards. Cumulatively, this article underlines the crucial yet occluded history of research on sensory impairments in the discovery of underlying neurophysiological processes of plasticity and the emergent discourse of neuroplastic subjectivity.



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Sensory Substitution and Perceptual Learning.Kevin Connolly - forthcoming - In Fiona Macpherson (ed.), Sensory Substitution and Augmentation. Oxford University Press.


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Mark Paterson
University of Pittsburgh

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The Perception Of The Visual World.James J. Gibson - 1950 - Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Action in Perception. [REVIEW]Alva Noë - 2005 - Journal of Philosophy 102 (5):259-272.
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Neural Plasticity and Consciousness.Susan Hurley & Alva Noë - 2003 - Biology and Philosophy 18 (1):131-168.

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