Sighted People and Braille

Obviously, sighted people can read Braille. (I wonder how many can, and why.) But consider this.

When Walter Cronkite died someone mentioned that in the early days of TV news someone proposed Walter learn to read Braille so he could read and keep his eyes on the camera. (The local DC TV station once had a blind anchorman who could do this.)

Can a sighted person read Braille and at the same time do anything else with the visual part of his brain? Read Braille and drive? and talk to someone? and look at a camera convincingly?

Somehow I suspect the “reading” part of the brain is the “eyes” art of the brain.

Fascinating question. When I was little I wanted to lean braille so that I could read in the dark. The curiosity to try has stayed with me through the years.

I see no reason though, to think that the information would have to go through the visual cortex. When I feel around in my purse to find a comb, I don’t feel any distraction in my visual processing.

Well, a sighted person can read two pages of normal text (biology classnotes) while inventing two pages’ worth of a completely different kind of text (a literature essay), and do it convincingly enough to get a perfect grade on the essay I’d forgotten to write for Lit class, why do you ask? Best grade I ever got on a homework essay, too!

I don’t see why would there be more of a disconnect between reading with your fingers and doing something else that doesn’t require the hands (ie, no “read Braille and drive”) than between reading with your eyes while your brain and mouth come up with completely different text.


In my youth I did a lot of tinkering with cars. Even ended up in the business for awhile.

In a lot of cases I’d be working on something I couldn’t see, feeling the way to get the nut on the bolt, or connect the connectors, or whatever. I had the perception I was using my vision system to solve the problem, but my fingers were doing the seeing, not my eyes. In fact, closing my eyes helped the “fingerseeing” to work better.

There is certainly a lot of work going on now with artificial perception to help blind or deaf or whatever people gain the sense they lack. In most cases we’re using electronics to stimulate some other sense & the brain is learning to process this novel input as the missing sense.

For example, a panel of hundreds of small vibrators is taped to somebody’s back and connected to a camera. The drive system vibrates the points in proportion to the light at that point in the camera, producing something like a grainy black & white “image” of vibrational intensity. And people report “seeing” it.
OTOOH - Can you listen to an audio book and use your eyes for something else? Sure. The act of understanding language isn’t inherently visual. Can people with very poorly matured visual systems (i.e. the blind from birth) learn to use Braille to read just fine? Sure. So reading isn’t inherently visual either.

Put that together and it seems like you (a sighted person) could learn to read Braille & use your eyes with normal skill for something unrelated to reading. Would it be a struggle at first? Probably yes, becasue “reading” and “vision” are pretty tightly linked in your brain now.

With practice, could you read one text with your eyes and another with your fingers? About as well as you can read one text with your eyes and listen to an audio book at the same time now. Which is to say, barely, but most folks think they’re a lot better at it than they really are.

Would playing the piano while speaking be analogous?

I studied classical piano for years and am (was) rather good. Depending on the difficulty of the piece and/or how well I knew it, I could carry on unrelated conversations (or view and comprehend an unrelated event, e.g. watch TV) while playing.

It was admittedly easier to talk about the piece (“Here comes the fugue theme in the bass”), so reading something in Braille and talking about it at the same time might be similar?

Playing the piano is “sending,” while reading Braille is “receiving.” I wonder if that makes a difference.

I tend to think that reading stimulates the “hearing” centers, and your brain creates imaginary voices in your head that sound like what you’ve read. But since reading is visual, most people will have a lot of visual processing tied up in reading too. If you were very well trained with braille that would probably disappear, and the tactile input would be converted to auditory input without any need for visual processing. But it might take a while before you could do it.

Hmmmm… I mean while I’m reading music off a printed page (just like reading printed words (or Braille, I assume)) and talking at the same time.

Of course, the difficulty of the music makes a difference. Reading and playing standard Christmas carols while making pleasant small talk (“nice weather, eh?”) is much easier than reading (and playing) a Chopin monstrosity and discussing philosophy.

Or reading Green Eggs and Ham while making pleasant small talk vs. reading Shakespeare and discussing philosophy silmultaneously.

I’m amazed by people that can read Braille. I don’t know if I have especially insensitive fingers, but I can’t even discern the pattern of dots by touch alone, so even if I learnt the alphabet, I can’t see how I’d be able to read it.

Second-hand anecdote, but an experienced special-ed teacher told me she could read Braille quite fast, but that she read visually.

She said that sighted people can’t generally touch read Braille anywhere near as fast as blind people can. Maybe it is just a matter of practice - I would think blind people spend a huge amount of time learning and then reading Braille.

Everything has already been correctly answered, but in high school I worked with blind students and had to learn to use a braille writer and read the results in transcribing notes. Though I tried and tried, all I could ever accomplish was sight reading because my finger tips are just not sensitive enough to do the job. By the time I was through with a page, it was so flat even the blind had trouble feeling the raised dots.

I imagine technology has come a long way in the computer era. Those old braille writers are a pain in the finger joints!

I don’t have personal experience to back this up, but from general learning experience in other areas my guess is that you don’t have the sensitivity because you don’t need it, you can “cheat” by looking at the dots.

Blind people - whether by birth or by accident - don’t have special fingers different from us, they simply have no choice but to develop the sensitivity because they spend hours each day learning it. They can’t take a peek at the dots, and the have a lot more exposure.

Though I would guess that not everybody learns it as well, and probably those who turn blind later in life when learning is slower and the brain is already hard-wired into sight-mode, will probably never achieve the same speed at reading Braille as people who learn it from the start.

Any neurologists here, or people who worked with different groups of blind people?

This could morph into an interesting thread. I worked with both, blind from birth and newly blind. I was amazed at some of the things we’d run into. One of the newly blind fellers I helped couldn’t even recall how to zipper a jacket. He was perfectly able when sighted, but unable and completely frustrated by the process after blindness.

I suddenly have the urge to snap my fingers and say “'eyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy”.

I once tried to learn Braille so I could translate writings, books etc. for the blind. When I took the test I failed 3 words and they said I would have to be 100% right so I was unable to do so.

I give people who can read or write Braille a lot of credit and I think it is wonderful that there are people who can communicate in such a manner, just as for those who can do sign language for the hearing impaired.