Brian Bushway


Hello everybody. Welcome. Let's get started. Let's first give a round of applause for all the volunteers. Thank you to all the sponsors for making this event possible.

For the next few moments, I am going to share some stories from my life. We will watch some videos, and also do some sound experiments.

Seeing in the dark

I lost my vision at the age of 14. But now I have a masters degree in special education. I get invited from all around the world to help countries, charities and organizations to develop programming for how does the brain image acoustically. The brain can image acoustically. In the last 20 years, neuroscience has been able to prove this.

We all have heard that if you lose one sense, the other senses get stronger. It has everything to do with neuroplasticity. The lifehack that we can all learn today is that every human being has the ability to see in the dark. So why are we all still afraid of the dark? Every human being has this natural resource of imaging acoustically.

Spatial processing center

They did fMRI scans of colleagues and our brains. They found that the brain takes auditory information, sends it to the visual cortex, and those parts of the brain are activated by an echo. The object recognition parts of the brain are activated by an echo. The visual cortex is really misnamed. We should really think of it as a spatial processing center.

Does anyone remember any classes on how you as a little toddler were trained to use your vision? No, there's really no classes. We just encourage people to get out there and go play, and people would throw balls at you and if you didn't catch it then you would get hit in the head. Some adults still have horrible hand-eye coordination. Well, if you practice enough, you can have ear-hand coordination if you make the environment audible and accessible.

There's real hope for all of us in our lives because our brains are already geared to do amazing things. The hardest part about changing the neuropathways in our brain is developing enough motivation to persevere through those adaptation changes.

Today, I would like to focus on two natural resources that we all have that I think most of us are not fully capitalizing on. The first one is our ability to be adaptable, which we all get because we're here. The other one is, how can we be more creative?


When I lost vision at the age of 14, it forced my hand to adapt and be more creative and I was forced into a life situation where I had to hack my other senses and make them better. But before I get into imaging acoustically, I have the problem of simply being a human being. I'm a human being first, before I happened to be blind or vision impaired. What happens is that as soon as you get a white cane and people see the label, they put you in a box and the other human beings are in the other box. It gets confusing, because we think that a person who has a disability doesn't have the same needs or desires as everybody else.

At 14, you don't really know you're losing your vision until it kind of goes. Has anybody hung out with your parents or grandparents and they can't really hear anymore? They don't even know what they are missing. They can't hear. It happens at such a gradual pace, you don't even know what you're missing.

So there I was at 14, we were all into rollerblading with my buddies. I could barely see 8 feet in front of me. I was skating. You sort of fake it until you make it, you keep them in the visual threshold and you follow and keep going. We were taunting each other, telling bad mom jokes, and before you know it I was going down a ramp and down the visual field I realized I was crossing a street and I couldn't tell if it was red or green to go. I slammed on my breaks, and there were horns honking. I collected myself, crawled back up on the corner and all my friends are gone. They have no idea. Vision loss is a hard thing to communicate to your buddies. But now I was stranded on this corner wondering how I was going to get home. There were so many streets to cross, and I couldn't see across this street right now. I figured, shoot, I have enough vision to get into trouble but not enough vision to get out of trouble. I'm stuck. And I didn't even have cell phones back then.

So I took a few deep breaths. Another deep breath. I started calming myself. As I calmed myself, I was able to think more logically. I was able to think in more creative ways. I figured it was safe to cross when perpendicular traffic wasn't in motion. I skated incredibly slow and eventually caught up with my friends. The first lesson in being a human being was that before I could solve the problems of blindness, the first problem was that I was emotionally blind. My emotions got the best of me, they were crowding all of my other thought about how we adapt and get out of this situation.


Even tomorrow some of us will do a more deep dive in sensory immersion, and we're going to fast from our dependency on artificial light and we're going to learn to pay attention to the rest of the information that is all still there.

The discovery in my life was moving from this place of feeling lost and feeling scarcity, and then rediscovering a whole new life of abundance and hope and beauty in the world of images.

In this next video I am going to show you, these are all human beings that have an interesting uniqueness. They all have something in common. That's their ability to get beyond their life situation. We're going to watch a music video called "Reneges" by the X Ambassadors. So to pay attention to everyone in the video, you're going to see us on a mountain bike and a bunch of my other friends. Please enjoy this video.


Okay, that's ironic. The video sound isn't playing. So let's adapt. I started making excuses for myself. I think the problem is that our general health literacy about what the true capacity of our senses are capable of, we're just not familiar with it. We haven't been challenged. Life functions well in the flow where we can process patterns of light. One of the things that challenged this was that I started hearing and noticing things differently. You have this experience of the senses coming online.

Situational awareness

So, sound. The first thing we all noticed is what just stopped? The beeping. Very good. How is that beeping useful information? Exactly, something is backing up. That sound tells us information. There's much more sound in everything. That's part of the first thing that we have to think about: how do we start using sound in a new way? It's situational awareness.

Everyone close your eyes for a second. Just listen to all the sounds. You can start labeling them. This is called "sound discrimination". We can get really good at this. There was a beeping sound, an alarm going off somewhere else, we hear people talking out in the back. Just by sound, we already have an idea. If I couldn't see, I could figure out how to get out of here because you can track closer to the different voices. You can open your eyes now if you want.

Sound tracking

The other sound principle that we need to get familiar with is "sound tracking". This is an important skill too. I have some keys and I'm jiggling some keys. You can even hear the keys jingle and move around in the room. This is sound tracking. This is important too. You can open your eyes now. Sound tracking is how tomorrow when we're under blindfold, how are we going to know where to go? We can hear other people moving, and we're going to have to keep track of those sounds.

These are all basic concepts. But pay attention to these over time, the brain starts to make new neurological connections and it starts growing. Before you know it, you're hearing the world in a different way than you did before. The brain's synapses actually changes one's acoustic image and the clarity of one's acoustic picture.

Tongue click and finger snaps

The way we use this imaging acoustically is an active tongue click and fingersnaps. Okay, everyone try it. We have some good tricks over there, but some sloppy clicks over here. You want the click to be clean and sharp. I love it, it's a beautiful symphony of sound. Yes, it sounds sort of like water. Great association.

The magic is not in clicking your mouth. You want it to be sharp and clear, but the real information is outside of us. It's out there. It's traveling at the speed of sound. Just like light, the lightbulb is the sun and it's reflecting off the wall and all the shiny things and we're drawn and attracted to those. It's based on light and reflection. It's just like echoes. The important thing to remember is don't listen to the click of the mouth, but the attention should be out in the environment instead.

Over time, your brain starts doing sound discrimination.

Panel exercise

The first thing I'm going to do is that I have a lovely bowl here. Any time around the world, this is probably the first things we do with any individual. We're going to call this a panel exercise. This is to help get the brain to go "aha! this is extra information and I need to start paying attention to it". As soon as we assign relevance to this information, we want it. Our bodies don't want to run into things. We as humans have a need to be physically grounded to our space. If we don't have a physical grounding in our environment, we're full of anxiety. This often happens in people who lose their vision. The primary sense from wherever we're constructing reality is vision, and when you take that away, you take away their entire self-concept of life. We all as members of the human species aren't aware enough of pushing our senses to their full limit.

First, I am going to make a "shh" sound. You might hear this sound get interrupted. Some may work better than others. Close your eyes, and listen. Shh, ... sshhh, did you guys hear that? Excellent. Very good. Within seconds guys, you were able to identify when something was down and when something was up, or when something came up. There was a clear difference in the thing. This bowl could represent a wall, the back of a car, any object there in 3d space.

So go ahead and close your eyes one more time. Let's play a game. Now that you know what you're listening for, I would like you to say "now" when you hear the sound change. Say "now" when you hear the sound change. It will be sustained. There we go. Very good. The pitch changed. Very good. Excellent. Give yourselves a round of applause.

Some of you have a good start as being people who can image acoustically. The other cool thing is that you can't just tell if something is there in front of you, but you can also tell distance. I am going to say "shh" and you will hear the noise oscillate and change, and this is representative of anyone moving closer or further from the wall. Even with the distraction of that beeping, we will still be able to hear that sound change, and be able to focus your attention even with that distraction is another skillset. Tomorrow we will be going on an urban hike, out on the street, and we will practice listening to multiple sound sources and keeping track of them. Oh good, the video is working now.

Sound distance. I am going to start far away, and then I will bring it closer, and you're going to hear the difference. You kind of hear that, it's kind of fast... but if I turn the bowl around the other way, it sounds different. Now I have the concave bulge of the bowl coming closer to my face. So you're already picking up on those things.

Underneath some of your-- there's not enough for everybody, but for the next few minutes, I would like you to try putting it in front of your place, you can even try a very subtle click. Give it a couple seconds, give it a few tries, then pass it around to someone else. Think about sound in new ways. Everybody got their chance? Anybody dying to? Oh yeah, it makes an interesting hat if you put the bowl over your head. It's like an umbrella. An umbrella can be disastrous for a person who images acoustically. Suddenly the things you're hearing behind you are actually in front of you; so you have to adapt to umbrellas. For any of these adaptive tools and technologies, we want to be curious.


If these people were not curious about chasing the spirit of life, I don't think we would see these people doing what they are doing. These are the X Ambassadors.

Kasey happens to be the one who is visually impaired. We also see Kyle, a quadripalegic from birth climbing a mountain. Also the stunt man for Spider-man 3's Toby McGuire... We can all live life like a renegade outside of our own box of low expectations. Any adaptive and creative thinking that we do, is that these are low expectations that we place on ourselves.

Identity crisis

When I lost my vision, it threw me into an identity crisis. You hear about people doing things and getting things done, but you don't even know enough. The fact that echolocation existed and other people did it, it seemed so beyond me that I needed help. The best help that people did is that they surrounded me with a social atmosphere of high expectations. If there's one thing that we should all walkaway with, is that the social relationships we have in this room will be the social environment that lets us break away from these expectations. We are people that live together, and I had to figure this out.

I remember when I first lost my vision and I asked my mom, what does this mean? She sits there and says, Brian, everything that matters in life is all still there. It's your ability to have relationships. I sat there and meditated on that. What's the currency of relationships? The currency of relationships is love. Me being blind has no impact on how much love I can create in the world. In fact, in this relational currency of life, I have limitless potential in my ability to create love in this world. This is a truth that haunts me to this day, but acting and expressing this out has been a very interesting thing to try to figure out how to do.

Carrying a white cane

This freed me up to get outside and to try. Early on, when I was moving with my cane, any time the cane would move and hit something and walk and discover and someone would say "oh how sad, he ran into something". No, the cane allows me to touch things. That's what it's for. When people see the cane, they say oh you need help. But the reason why I carry a white cane is because I am a more capable person with it. This cane was the first adaptive tool I had even before starting to access my sound in a whole new way.

Neuroplasticity shows that, when eeveryone gets a cane tomorrow, it's pretty cool. It's a long arm. It's not a cane. It's genius. That kid is already a poetic, he's describing what's actually happening in the brain. They did studies with hockey players or any sports person that uses a tool in their hand, the brain with hockey players sees no difference between the end of their hand and the end of their hockey stick. This is called a para-perceiver.

You don't even think of the cane as a tool, we take it for granted. But any person using a cane, that's a brilliant example of brain adaptation when someone is using a cane like that. We can also adapt to image in the dark.

I had to find other individuals, I had to practice, and I had to create motivation. Being labeled blind actually created a social obstacle and I realized oh my gosh I have a lot to bring to the table of life. Discrimination can happen by exclusion, like you don't get invitations to parties or to mountain biking. So I had to invite people and teach them this. The next video we're going to watch is a good video because it shows the advanced level of what one can do. There's an artist who designed an abstract sculpture. I was not allowed to touch it. This was at Canada Discovery Planet. I had to echolate and image this acoustically, and then describe it to a person. This was never thought possible. How could someone describe something they previously had never done? But now we have a video that proves it. I myself would have never gotten to this level if I didn't have a good support system, a good community that challenged and believed in me, and this is possible. Let's enjoy.

Second video

Brian Bushway has been blind since the age of 14 but he's still able to perceive the world around him using a technique called echolocation. "Echolocation is human sonar. It's the ability to interpret echoes reflecting off of objects". But for Brain, these echoes are from the clicks in his mouth, and it translates into images in his brain, similar to what it was like when he had vision. "I had no idea that I could learn to see again, to see in acoustic images". Is it possible to see without sight? We decided to put that idea to the test.

We put together an experiment allowing us to see the world the way that Brian does. We took a forensic portrait artist, and she takes images out of someone's head and puts it on paper. Today she is going to use her skills to get an image out of Brian's head. In this artist studio, he's going to use echolocation to describe an object made by a local artist. Melissa will draw an object based on only what Brian describes. This is object analysis- discovering an object, and being able to describe subtle echo information.

I started by trying to find the edges. I discovered the edges were all rounded. There's a long side and a really short side. It's irregular in shape. It seems to have lots of curves to it. It's about 5 feet tall. I would say it's my shoulder width wide. The artist was overwhelmed a bit. It seems pretty smooth, the same texture. There's a thinner side and a wider side. One side seems to be a little bit taller than the other side. The whole thing is wavy. It's irregular in its waviness. As the experiment progressed, Melissa asked about the base. It's more rounded. Brian was having difficulty with the complexity of the statue. The hardest part of this process is really trying to verbalize the subtle information of the echo. If I didn't know better, I would have had no idea he was blind, he's giving me the same information a sighted person would have. Before the experiment ends, he wants a piece of paper. The craziest part was when I just finished and he just drew the outline exactly what I had just drawn. I had no idea that I was drawing anythingclose to what he was describing. There were no straight-angled lines, when I finally touched it. One of the things that threw him off was the metal base. The payoff was very satisfying.


I was nervous going into that. I didn't know if it was going to work. It's all documented, the cameras are rolling, I hope what I'm talking about is real. I do this every day, I ride a mountain bike down the street, but I started questioning it because the cameras on. I was questioning this ability. If human beings can image acoustically, and we all have the resources to conquer the fear of darkness, what else is possible?

The trick is human motivation. The fuel or inspiration for my motivation is able to transform my biology that one day scientists wanted to measure my brain, go figure. Okay, doing something pretty interesting. So this is a natural human perception. You all in this room have this ability. I do, everybody does. So what else is possible? Let's move into Q&A in a second here.

I think the most important thing I can offer you today is that, it doesn't matter what adaptive technology or methods or approach- we still have to take that technology or methodology and bring it into the human condition. As a teacher, that's where the art of teaching comes in. I get to know students around the world in different cultures and get them to access not only the physical world in a new way, but also their social world and they overlap 100%.


Q: You used the expression early, something about positive expectations placed on you as someone who was disabled. What if the expectations were too high on you? How does one who is not disabled know what those lines might be?

A: As a rule, we do not have high enough expectations for people with disabilities, all across the board. We're all human beings first. I was reading this book called Atomic Habits. Expectations of a shared tribe... the five people we spend the most time with, are going to be the greatest predictors of our future. Look at the five people you spend the most time with. If you don't like what they are doing, then change your friends. So I had to do that. Even in the institutions for visual impairment, I was up trying to walk around and there were still people getting lost in the front yard who had more training in 15 years than I had in my first 2 years of being blind. It had everything to do with their training and their family and their expectations. You have to know that individual, on their own, to see if they really want to do that. But also, us surrounding that individual, we should not place our conceived limitations on them. When I first lost my vision, people said blind people don't do that. I went to Las Vegas for a bachelor party and this lady came up to me and said "oh wow a blind person, he's outside, good for him". I had to tell him I was blind. He didn't believe it. "Blind people don't come here, outside in Vegas". That's where most people are at. You have to know the individual, but we also have to help that individual by having high expectations. Also, patience. This did not happen for me over night. It took me one step a day to get better. I had to get 1% better a day, and over a few years it adds up and compounds and before you know it you're one of the best blind mountain bikers in the world. Although keep in mind, there's not that much competition, but I still wear the title proudly.