Adaptability is an innate part of the way the brain functions.
It was a regular day in New York in 1985 when Pedro Bach-y-Rita, a Spanish teacher who’d lived a happy and successful life in the city for many years, suddenly collapsed. He’d suffered a massive stroke and was left paralyzed. The doctors treating Bach-y-Rita claimed there was nothing they could do for him.
But they were wrong.
What they had underestimated was how adaptable humans are. Both of Bach-y-Rita’s sons were in medical school when their father fell ill. Unhappy with his doctors’ diagnoses, they decided to physically re-educate him from scratch, as though he were a baby. The first task they set was teaching their father to crawl, using kneepads and the support of a wall.
Once he’d mastered that, they began setting more difficult tasks, like catching balls, which were designed to train his motor systems. Bach-y-Rita made remarkable progress under their supervision – he was soon sitting and, a little later, walking. Astonishingly, within a year he was back to work teaching Spanish at the City College of New York, where he remained until his retirement.
So, how did Bach-y-Rita regain control over his basic motor functions, despite the serious brain damage he’d suffered during his stroke? It comes down to the plasticity of the human brain. Essentially, the undamaged parts of his brain took control over the damaged areas.
Bach-y-Rita’s son Paul returned to medical school after helping his father. He later became one of the first scientists to verify the theory of neural plasticity – the idea that the human brain’s capacities and functions aren’t set in stone but can adapt and change.
In one experiment, Paul demonstrated that blindfolded participants were able to catch balls thanks to a head-mounted camera that relayed images to their brains through sensory receptors on their tongues. That’s a shining example of how different neural pathways and neurons in the brain can adapt and tackle new tasks, like interpreting images.