Giving Sight to the Blind Answers Centuries-Old Question

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BY STEVEN SPARKMAN ANCHOR CHRISTINA HARTMAN You're watching multisource health video news analysis from N...
BY STEVEN SPARKMAN ANCHOR CHRISTINA HARTMAN You're watching multisource health video news analysis from Newsy. It’s not every day scientists get to answer a 300-year-old philosophical question and give sight to blind children at the same time. But New Scientist reports how a group studying neuroscience by treating blindness has done just that. “Five children in India have helped to answer a question posed in 1688 by Irish philosopher William Molyneux: can a blind person who then gains their vision recognise by sight an object they previously knew only by touch?” The question has deep implications for how our brains work and how we perceive the world around us. For that reason, it’s been a favorite thought experiment for philosophers and neuroscientists alike. Science Magazine explains the two points of view. “An affirmative answer to the question would support the argument that we possess innate ... concepts that are independent of the senses -- for example, that we possess a concept of a sphere... A negative answer to Molyneux's question would support the alternative argument that any concept of a sphere or other object must be tied to sensory experience.” Understandably, it’s tough to answer the question either way, since preventable blindness is treated early in the west. That’s where Project Prakash comes in. Project Prakash, which means “light” in Sanskrit, visits schools for the blind in rural India, where medical care is scarce. They find children whose blindness is treatable. They’ve given sight to over 700 children, some of whom agreed to let researchers test and observe them as they learned to handle their new sense. (Image Source: Project Prakash) Shortly after surgery, they gave the children items to touch, without seeing them, then asked them to identify the items by sight alone. The project is headed by MIT neuroscientist Pawan Sinha, who shared his early findings in 2009. “We find that the answer is a ‘no.’ Immediately after sight onset, children are entirely at chance at transferring their haptic knowledge to the visual domain. But interestingly enough, give them a week and they can do this at ceiling level, at 100%.” (Video source: MIT / Video Lectures) So the answer seems to be “no, but kinda.” The improvement happened too quickly to be caused by major changes in the brain, so there’s more research needed to figure out exactly what’s going on. Still, a Boston University psychologist told MIT, it’s nice to get data out of positive situations. “Traditionally in neuroscience, many insights come from misfortune -- someone has an accident and suffers brain damage, or a surgery goes wrong... We’ve had to wait for the brain to break in interesting ways, and then we go in to analyze it. Here, we’ve got the opposite situation.” Get more multisource health video news analysis from Newsy. Transcript by Newsy.