James Randi


Readers often send me notices of interesting items, as I'm sure all of you are aware. When a claim of a "sixth sense" found by scientists in the UK was recently announced in the news, that certainly got my rapt attention. But, as with most of these "breakthroughs," the claim quickly faded upon closer examination. Here's the process:

As a magician, I'm well aware of the difference between "seeing" something, and "perceiving" it. My spectators frequently "see" the secret of a trick, but aren't aware of it � they don't process what enters their eyes, but ignore it. Try this experiment: look over to your left, and focus on some object there. Next, look over to your right � at least 90 degrees to the right � and focus on another object there. Okay? Now answer this question: Did you see anything in between the two objects you focused on? Yes, you did see the information in between, in that the image scanned across your retina as you switched from target to target, but you didn't actually perceive that information. (The difference here is that to "perceive" means to be aware of, or to identify, while "seeing" something is only having the image hit your retina, while you don't necessarily identify it or analyze the data you received.) This small experiment demonstrates the process whereby a spectator can "see" the modus, but not be aware of it because it looks like natural background or ambient information, and it doesn't get processed. All of which brings me to this item:

I've had several notices about a media report that tells of a 52-year old British man with a peculiar condition. He suffered two strokes which damaged his brain areas that would normally process his visual input, leaving him "blind." However, his eyes and optic nerves are still intact, and what really amazes one here is that though researchers at the University of Wales found that he cannot recognize simple, basic images of shapes such as circles or squares, and has a similar lack of success determining the gender of emotionless male and female faces, he is able to identify and analyze pictures of human faces showing strong emotions such as anger, happiness or fear � to a significant degree of accuracy.

The researchers performed brain scans on the subject, which indicated that when he was shown pictures of faces expressing emotion, it activated the part of his brain called the right amygdala, which is known to recognize and respond to non-verbal emotional signals.

Now, this claim is not at all difficult for me to accept as quite possible. However, the report published on the Aljazeera web site ( starts with the very erroneous and presumptuous statement:

A completely blind British man has been shown to possess an apparent sixth sense which lets him recognize emotions on people's faces, British scientists said.

That's not at all what they said. The definition of the term "blind" is paramount here, especially when modified as, "completely blind." Consider: the process of "seeing" starts with the information in the form of light entering the eye, becoming a focused image, and hitting the retina. Next, that data is sent to the brain for processing. If this report about the Brit is true, that's where the interpretation has broken down, allowing only the "severe human facial expressions" function of the brain to accept and process the data.

This is not too far-fetched an idea, at all. We know of well-verified examples (few, but enough) of persons who have lost their ability to recognize a person by seeing their face, an ability that I'm told resides in the "right fusiform gyrus," located in the temporal lobe of the brain. These people function quite normally in other respects, but cannot identify even their close relatives from facial features � though they can sometimes identify them through specific costumes, voice patterns, or even individual odors!

Also, persons who have been blind since birth are occasionally able to obtain their sense of sight later in life � and of course have problems with stereo vision (since they've not learned to converge images from the two eyes) and also find that they have to learn the difference between � for examples � the images of an orange and a banana, by actually touching each object; they cannot relate visual images of shapes or sizes to the actual objects. The portions of their brains that could process that data, have not yet learned to do so.

Considering these findings, and assuming that these tests were well done, I do not doubt that the Brit described here is simply exhibiting the limitations of the brain/retina connection. Fascinating, but certainly not well-described by the term "sixth sense." A better description might be that this man has "partial use of his fifth sense."

In relation to the JREF prize, no cigar.

James Randi has given special permission to publish his articles in Mukto-mona.

James Randi is a professional magician, author, lecturer, and investigator of unusual claims. His books include The Mask of Nostradamus, The Faith Healers, Flim-Flam!, The Truth About Uri Geller, and Houdini--His Life and Art. He is one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and belongs to numerous humanist and scientific organizations. Contributor of Mukto-Mona.