Nothing mentioned, nothing gained

It’s All in the Eyes: How an Optical Illusion May Help the Paralysed to Write

Some things are just too terrible for my mind to process. The story of Richard Marsh, who woke up in intensive care following a stroke with “full cognitive and physical awareness, but an almost complete paralysis of nearly all the voluntary muscles in my body” to hear doctors discussing whether to switch off his life support machine, was one of the most harrowing things I have ever read. A religious person would have read that story and prayed – but my instinctive reaction was to hope that science would find a way to make these terrible situations better. And as it happened, just two days after I read Marsh’s story in the Guardian, New Scientist carried a story of an amazing new technology that will allow locked-in survivors to communicate much more naturally and easily than they do now.

Amazingly, Marsh recovered and now has a healthy and active lifestyle. He has recovered 95% of his cognitive ability and has even taken up cycling. Other sufferers of locked-in syndrome are not so lucky but once it is recognised that their cognitive ability is intact, they may be able to communicate by blinking. French author Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated his entire memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by blinking, and the Sun carried a remarkable story of an even more remarkable woman and her inspiring young family who are living and loving life even though she is paralysed from the neck down. Her husband reads the alphabet to her and she blinks at the relevant letters to spell out her thoughts.

In locked-in syndrome, the eye is often the only voluntary muscle that can be moved at will.

This is inspiring and deeply moving, but one thing it cannot be is easy. Marsh described his lonliness in the long nights spent alone at the hospital, “the loneliess of knowing there’s no one there who really understands how to communicate with you.”

People have investigated using the eyes to write before now, but this is difficult as our eyes constantly make fast, jerky movements called saccade. When we look at something, we our eyes are constantly moving even if we think our gaze is fixed. Our eyes focus on something, then move, stop, move, stop again – much faster even than the blink of an eye. This enables us to see much more effriciently, but as we cannot consciously control the speed at which our eyes move in between stops, it has made it challenging for us to move our eyes smoothly enough to trace out letters that people around us can read.

But Jean Lorenceau, a researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, has developed an ingenious optical illusionthat will trick our eyes into moving

English: This is an optical illusion in which ...

English: This is an optical illusion in which a static image appears to be moving due to the cognitive effects of interacting color contrasts and shape position. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

smoothly – smoothly enough that we can draw with them. For all the locked-in patients in the world, this could change their lives. Unable to move, they must rely on others to meet every physical need, and the ability to communicate is absolutely essential. Marsh remembers some rough handling in hospital – this was probably not intentional, but when Marsh had no way to tell the nurses that he was uncomfortable, they could not have known to be more gentle. The ability to write will surely make it easier for locked-in patients to meet and communicate with new people – people who aren’t already familiar with the blinking system that a particular person has developed for their own use.

Phi motion is the technology used to convert still pictures into a moving film. Lorenceau has used a technology called “reverse phi motion.” By changing the colour of an object, that object can appear to be moving backwards. It’s a strange concept, and hard to believe until you’ve seen it:

Lorenceau was idly watching an illusion just like this one when he noticed that his eyes were doing something unexpected – they were following a field of flickering dots smoothly, without saccade. This type of eye movement, called smooth pursuit, is what we use to track moving objects, but it is difficult for us to start and maintain it. Partly this is because when we are tracking a moving object, the still background constantly slips away from the moving object, injucing saccades. But reverse phi motion is different in that the background appears to move with a moving object, making it possible for us to track something smoothly.

Lorenceau has since designed his own reverse phi display, featuring 200 disks that switch between black and white and are projected on a gray background. People follow a moving dot with their eyes, and the reverse phi motion keeps their movement smooth enough that a gaze-tracking camera can follow the right eye’s movements and use them to move a cursor on a screen which will spell out words and sentences.

This technique is not natural, and Lorenceau did note that some people could pick it up much more readily than others. However, 6 volunteers were trained to control their eye movements in just three 30 minute sessions. Lorenceau is currently perfecting his training so that the technique can be learned by anyone, including paralysed patients. He seems to think it is possible “It’s like surfing, you move your eyes to get on the wave and once you’re on you just slide with it.”


42 comments on “It’s All in the Eyes: How an Optical Illusion May Help the Paralysed to Write

  1. 5kidswdisabilities
    August 12, 2012

    That is such an awesome post!!! I looked at the illusion and was amazed to see it moving!

  2. wyroby z betonu
    August 13, 2012

    very good put up, i certainly love this web site, carry on it

  3. rami ungar the writer
    August 13, 2012

    This could be a start to something great and new; maybe someday eye movement could be used to move mechanical arms or wheelchairs. However, if that technology is available, maybe there will also be technology enough to help people with locked-in syndrome recover more rapidly.

  4. juju333
    August 13, 2012

    Fantastic. This will be such a wonderful tool for those who can’t communicate but need to.

  5. trumpettune
    August 13, 2012

    the is very interesting i enjoyed reading this thank you

  6. win
    August 13, 2012


  7. shuangoiadept
    August 13, 2012

    Hi, I really want to congratulate on this beautiful post..! It was way informative..! So cheers..!

  8. theoriginalsung
    August 13, 2012

    great post, interesting!

  9. amber lewis
    August 13, 2012

    That’s really cool. Thanks for sharing.

  10. susan sheldon nolen
    August 13, 2012

    Very informative. I was well pleased about hearing about his recovery!

  11. littlewhitepagan
    August 13, 2012

    Science rules!

  12. candelacouture
    August 13, 2012

    honestly one of the most interesting posts ive read and congrats on being “freshly pressed” 🙂
    Do you mind checking out my blog, its new and id love your feedback
    Thanks so much!

  13. ayushmanpershad
    August 13, 2012

    Reblogged this on AYUSHMAN PERSHAD and commented:
    Optical Illusion may help the paralysed to write.

  14. free penny press
    August 13, 2012

    Wow, I would have paid for a class on this.. great stuff.

  15. win
    August 13, 2012

    Reblogged this on wincharles.

  16. iamkarenw
    August 13, 2012

    Great post, I’m sharing this with my family & friends. 🙂

  17. Eye Pieces
    August 13, 2012

    Reblogged this on Eye Pieces and commented:
    Amazing story!

  18. TrishaDM
    August 13, 2012

    Fascinating! I know a man, a physician, actually who had a brain stem stroke and was locked in. And diagnosed himself, even before those around him did. He regained the ability to breathe and speak somewhat and now speaks to groups of health care professionals on the syndrome and various aspects of health care. Thanks for sharing this piece!

  19. Wow, fascinating!

  20. amomentofrealization
    August 13, 2012

    This is really interesting information. It is however challenging work using eyetracking equipment, as I have used it for research projects in my professor’s lab. It is sophisticated equipment, but there are some minor issues locking on to and tracking eye movements, so there is still much work to be done but when it’s all perfected it will truly change people’s lives.

  21. Very cool and interesting article.

  22. Someone Else
    August 14, 2012

    giit out! a definitely share — thanks!

  23. rizalID
    August 14, 2012

    waoww., its make see can effect..

  24. Nicki Vigil (@ndv09)
    August 14, 2012

    Beautiful….amazing…thank you

  25. ChangeTheWorld
    August 14, 2012

    Amazing! The people you have talked about are so strong!

  26. Remaja
    August 14, 2012

    Nice Article

  27. Pingback: “It’s All in the Eyes: How an Optical Illusion May Help the Paralysed to Write” « Lancaster County LINK

  28. Val
    August 14, 2012

    I’m phobic of possibly succumbing to locked in syndrome, though reading Bauby’s book helped free me from some of that fear. However, the idea that this new development might work for all people with Locked In Syndrome won’t be true. For a start, I couldn’t look for more than a second or two at your optical image example above nor could I look at the images in the link you gave, because that sort of movement and flicker give me migraines. I’m not alone in this. And these sorts of migraine triggers can also trigger epilepsy in those who are sensitive to them. So it’s not all a ‘one fit’ solution. That said – you’ve written an interesting post. (And well done on getting Freshly Pressed. I don’t read many of them, but this is one of the better ones. 🙂 )

  29. Floyda Foley
    August 14, 2012

    That’s fantastic!

  30. littlecitybot
    August 14, 2012

    wow. i had never heard of locked in syndrome. super crazy and marsh’s is a very inspiring story. thanks for sharing! this is such an interesting concept. and i’ve always wondered about the smooth tracking thing you brought up (i always watch people’s eyes on the metro and wonder if we can watch things without our eyes flickering like that, you know?) (actually..maybe that’s not the same thing at all) (sorry haha) x

  31. craptoday
    August 14, 2012

    this is superb as well as so peculiar.. i had never heard of any thing like this before.. great post

  32. lista de email
    August 14, 2012

    just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that i have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. any way i’ll be subscribing to your feed and i hope you post again soon lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

  33. lista de emails
    August 15, 2012

    his article is very nice understanding the patients is very important from this i understood everything thank you. lista de emails lista de emails lista de emails lista de emails lista de emails

  34. Be a model
    August 16, 2012

    Woooh, its just remarkable what can be done nowadays!

  35. Rakhi Kankane
    August 18, 2012


  36. lista de email
    August 18, 2012

    you should publish more articles like this and you will be famous. you have the talent to become a super star. your article is superb. keep it up. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

  37. Earl Kleinhenz
    August 19, 2012

    I just want to tell you that I am newbie to weblog and honestly liked your page. Very likely I’m planning to bookmark your blog . You definitely have remarkable article content. Thanks a bunch for revealing your website page.

  38. dancingonadream
    August 26, 2012

    How inspiring and amazing!

  39. Pingback: Eyes Like to Move It Move It | Apertis Oculis

  40. Wanetta Fifer
    September 11, 2012

    You decidedly put a new spin on a topic that’s been written about for years. Incredible stuff, just great! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think, thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner too.

  41. christinasmartinezed
    October 1, 2012

    Reblogged this on Christina Martinez Page.

  42. fireandair
    December 26, 2012

    Wondering if smooth eye tracking together with a gestural text input method like the one mentioned here called “cirrin” might not work well together for paralyzed folks.

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