Text: Béatrice Schaad, chief editor
Photo: Patrick Dutoit

Seeing with your ears, by Béatrice Schaad

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”) In writing those words, Magritte was playing on a universally shared doubt: is what we see truly reality or a mental construction that we alone perceive?

In other words, the world is not the world; it is the view we have of it, which transforms it. Perception is wonderfully complex, as shown by the work that has enabled blind people to “see” with their ears. It is the combination of one’s own sensitivity, background, culture, senses and the moment it takes place. Though an infinitely personal experience, perception can also be shared – and this is perhaps its most miraculous feature. Aristotle hit the mark when he added a sixth sense to the first five, one that is very different from hearing, smell, or taste but that brings them all together: common sense. It’s a sort of guarantee that we’ll agree with others about what is beautiful or what hurts. It’s a consensus, a wall to protect us from solitude.

But will this consensus endure? Over the past decade, incredible neuroscientific developments have continued to shake up the very idea of common sense. As studies into the mechanisms of perception have become more advanced, medical imaging has revealed how personal these mechanisms are and how widely they can vary from one individual to another.

It is striking to note that, as our society increasingly caters to individuality, encouraging everyone to stand out and constantly perform (the “me” society), medical technology is now following suit and focusing more on the individual. Crick and Watson’s first discovery about the structure of DNA 60 years ago sparked the development of personalised medicine and the ethical issues that go along with it. Genomics and the potential to develop a given pathology change the approach to treatment. When faced with a risk, both patient and doctor are more often inclined to agree that prevention is better than treatment. How affordable is this medicine that promises treatment tailored to one’s genetic make-up? Can we refuse it for patients who are paying increasingly high premiums?

This dilemma between focusing on an individual’s specific needs and the necessity to apply scientific discoveries to the population as a whole is as old as the history of science itself. Except that, today, the pressure is certainly higher. Research will have to strike a delicate balance to maintain its efforts in studying both the individual and the group simultaneously while developing therapeutic responses that can be applied to as many people as possible.