A man held up a big foam number “8” on its side like an infinity sign and said the object, with its two loops, looked like a mask to him. But when he turned the foam number upright, the object dematerialized into a jumble of lines. 

“He described it as being the strangest thing he’s ever seen,” said David Rothlein, a postdoctoral researcher and cognitive scientist at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System. This man, referred to by his initials RFS, has a rare degenerative brain condition that does not allow him to “see” numbers — on paper, as objects or even those secretly embedded in scenes.



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