The Dialogue in the Dark exhibition in Israel aims to bridge the understanding between sighted and blind people. BBC Future visits the museum to learn about the ways the brain can adapt to life without vision.

I know there isn’t one dot of light, but I frantically scan the pitch-black area surrounding me out of habit nonetheless.

As I shuffle slowly through the carpeted hallway, clumsily swinging my long cane in a small arch the way the guide instructed a minute ago, I can hear the sounds of exotic birds, the rustle of wind through the trees and a babbling brook just around the corner. After stumbling through a doorway, the flat carpet suddenly gives way to a hill covered in rocks. The breeze hits my face and the cacophony of an artificial forest is everywhere.

“Okay kids! We’re in the nature now. What can you find?” says our guide, 45-year-old Meair Mattityahu, who lost his sight shortly after birth.

Now that I know there are obstacles, I’m worried that if I take another step I’m going to walk directly into a tree

“I found a tree!” shouts an 11-year old girl visiting with her family from New York. I’m still lagging behind the group, standing a few feet from the entrance on the bumpy mound that imitates earth, trying to get my bearings. Now that I know there are obstacles, I’m worried that if I take another step I’m going to walk directly into a tree.

This is just the first room of seven at the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition at the Children’s Museum in Holon, Israel, more commonly referred to as the “blind museum.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 38 million people are blind around the world, with an additional 110 million having low vision and at great risk of becoming blind. Like the dark dining concept, where visitors eat in a restaurant that is in complete darkness, this exhibition, which started in Germany in 1988 and has franchises in several countries, is designed to bridge understanding between sighted and blind people, and give visitors a taste of what it feels like to be blind.

Some people become so disoriented and unfocused that they can’t tell left from right

Mattityahu says that he’s witnessed all kinds of initial reactions to the exhibit. Some people panic, some start screaming as if others won’t be able to hear them in the dark, others laugh. At least one has fainted. “Some people become so disoriented and unfocused that they can’t tell left from right,” he says. “I’ll tell them to use their left hand to find the wall, and they can’t do it.”

By the end of our 90-minute tour, we will have ridden on a boat, wandered through a house, walked down a public street, shopped for fruit and vegetables at a grocery store and drank soda in a bar, all in complete darkness. Though it’s terrifying at first, it is also enlightening. About half-an-hour in, I find that my other senses are more focused, primarily hearing and touch, including the telling bumps beneath my cane, and it becomes increasingly easy and more natural to navigate through each room.

The more a blind subject shows activity in their visual brain, the better they are at some auditory processes

Our brains are, after all, enormously adaptable to make the most of what they are given. For sighted people, the areas of the brain’s cortex devoted to visual processing has more neurons than those processing hearing and touch combined, allowing our eyes to quickly analyse our surroundings. In the absence of sight, however, our others senses may pick up the slack. Research on blindness and neuroplasticity have even shown that being blind can change the way the brain processes information, with studies demonstrating that early-blind individuals use their occipital cortex in auditory, verbal processing and/or tactile processing.

“A lot of work has shown that blind people recruit occipital areas to process non-visual stimuli, including hearing and touch,” says Patrice Voss, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University. “The more a blind subject shows activity in their visual brain, the better they are at some auditory processes.”

Voss’s research has shown that early-blind people outperform sighted people at locating sounds on a horizontal plane when limited to one ear, while other studies have shown blind people outperform sighted people on other nonvisual tasks like recognising voices and verbal memory.

Though people who lose their sight later in life still exhibit behavioral changes, Voss says that early or congenitally blind individuals typical benefit from more reorganisation of visual areas than people who lose their sight in adulthood.

“Our brain is less plastic as we age, so there’s less room for change. But early experience also drives the connections that our brain forms,” he says. “If you’re deprived of visual input early on you will likely become more accustomed to processing non-visual input within the visual areas.”

People also often refer to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder as examples of blind individuals with superior musical abilities and there is some research to back the claim that early blindness could lead to superior auditory skills. One study from 2004 for example found that the percentage of musicians who possess absolute pitch – the ability to identify and recreate a musical note – was significantly higher in a blind population of musicians than in a sighted population of musicians. Voss also worked on a study the same year in which blind participants were better at discriminating changes in pitch than sighted participants.  

“People always say that if they had to give up their sight, they would die. But that’s not the case,” said Mattityahu. “For me, I’d rather have my sense of hearing. I cannot see, but I can hear, remember, communicate, walk – I function regularly.”

One of the hopes of the exhibit is that visitors will learn to judge blind people based on their abilities rather than merely their blindness

Mattiyahu says that in addition to empathising with the blind, one of the hopes of the exhibit is that visitors will learn to judge blind people based on their abilities rather than merely their blindness. “I wish that in the light, my life would be more like in the exhibit,” he said. “Nobody saw me before you came here and everyone very quickly learned how to trust me. But if you had met me in the light, no one would consider the possibility of getting help from a blind person. And I’m thinking, why not? The same way I could guide you here, I could also tour you in the light.”

It’s not just the physical world that can pose challenges for blind people; they also have to learn to navigate the digital world. How does it feel to use technology as a blind person?

Just as the Internet has increased the speed of information for sighted people, so it has for the blind

You may not realise it, but it’s likely that your smart phone and computer have settings that make them useable without sight. Android phones have a series of settings you can enable including Talk Back and Explore by touch, as well as Vlingo, a Siri-like voice command software; while Apple devices have an accessibility setting called VoiceOver. While they each have advantages and disadvantages, they typically work by reading what the user is touching on the phone, which allows them to select the correct app, menu item, text box, or whatever it is they need.

Furthermore, apps like the LookTel Money Reader and the Color Identifier by GreenGar Studio uses the camera to identify and speak the names of currency from all over the world and colors respectively. Other apps like the Ray App by Project Ray simplify the interface of Android phones and orientates options on the phone based on where you initially touch on the screen.

I used my iPhone on its VoiceOver setting for a week. Switching it on was easy enough, but after that I was at a loss, even while looking at the phone, since VoiceOver uses a completely different set of gestures. For example, swiping up and down in VoiceOver doesn’t move the page up or down, swiping with two fingers do. I decided to get a lesson from an expert.

We use all the apps sighted people use like Netflix, Google Maps, Moovit, Whatsapp, et cetera

Liran Frank worked as a computer technician before he lost his sight to a congenital degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa. “It’s not that blind people only use assistant technology,” he says. “We use all the apps sighted people use like Netflix, Google Maps, Moovit, Whatsapp, et cetera. Using VoiceOver is so simple; you just have to get the hang of it. I use my phone at the speed of a sighted person.”

Drawing the digital curtain

After a quick lesson with Frank, who teaches blind people how to use smart phones and computers and creates instructional podcasts about VoiceOver, I began using my phone on VoiceOver with a digital curtain drawn so that the screen perpetually looked as if the phone was off.

Within a day, using my phone when it was black was surprisingly intuitive. Various sounds indicating certain things help orientate you and become instinctive. For example telltale sounds will indicate that you can’t erase anymore in a text field, that you’ve successfully opened something or that you are off the parameters of the screen. Various one- to four-finger gestures, like swiping, tapping, double tapping, triple tapping and a motion called “scrubbing” help navigate and give commands to the phone quickly.

For example, you can double tap anywhere on the screen to stop a talk-back of something, for example if the screen is reading a text message or email that you’ve heard before. There’s even a virtual rotor that you can activate by twisting two fingers on the screen as if turning a dial, which gives more options relevant to the page or app you are on, like producing a list of links, or having words spoken to you, character by character, so you can check the spelling of something.

I was able to check my email, send and listen to text messages both by typing and using dictation, surf the Internet on Safari, make phone calls and play music. After listening to Frank’s podcast and with some practice, I was even able to use Google Maps.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t frustrations. In addition to the initial learning curve that includes sending messages like the one below, there are often challenges when an app is updated. While some apps and websites are accessible by design, it’s clear that some are only well-suited for use with VoiceOver or other screen-reading software by chance. Frank says he used a popular public transportation app with VoiceOver until an update made the app significantly graphic and therefore inaccessible. “A group of us wrote them a letter,” he said. “They wrote us back telling us that they had no idea that blind people used their software and that they wanted it to be accessible. So they worked with us to hire a programmer to go through the code and make it totally accessible again.”

Frank believes it’s more worthwhile to spend energy and resources making apps that already exist more accessible rather than create interfaces or phones specifically for blind users. “Those phones are typically more limited and don’t give you all the functions of the normal device,” he says. “I think it’s a bit condescending since we’re smart enough to learn how to use the normal phones with accessible websites and apps, and it gives us more capabilities.”

And while getting private companies to be concerned about accessibility may continue to be an ongoing challenge, many in the blind community say it is just another issue that they will learn to navigate.

As for me, I would’ve liked to try using an app to guide me through the dark exhibit. Perhaps it’s an element organisers will add to the experience in the future. But the most revealing part was leaving the exhibit. After spending a couple hours in the dark tuning my other senses, I was completely bombarded by visual information and felt more comfortable closing my eyes on the drive home. I then realised both how much most of us depend on our sight – and how rich the world can be without it.

--

Join 600,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.