Aug 162016

You certainly know the game little kids play where they have a cube, a sphere and a pyramid, and they have to put them through holes of the corresponding shape. In the beginning, this might be difficult, but it becomes quite easy and dull after some time. Now, it is simple for most people, but how difficult is the same task for blind people? i.e., Can people who have been blind for their entire life and are familiar with different shapes by their tactile sense, recognize the same shapes when they gain the ability to “see”?

This question, referred to as the Molyneux Problem, was first asked by William Molyneux, an Irish philosopher and politician, in 1688.[1] Of course, answers that could verify this question were not easy to find in the 17th century due to the impossibility of highly complex surgeries at that time. Nevertheless, a lot of discussions arose about the co-operation between our senses. For instance: Is the eye able to understand the geometry of objects or is the visual recognition just possible by a learned collaboration with the tactile sense?[2] Or the other way around: How do blind people understand shape; how do they “look” for them?

Just recently, in 2011, five children, who were born blind, became able to see after surgery at the ages between 8 and 17. They were familiar with several shapes by examining them with their hands. Interestingly, they were not able to relate this tactile information with the visual input from these objects, but they learned to connect both senses quite fast.[3] However, discussions are still not at an end, to unequivocally explain the outcomes.

The Molyneux Problem once again shows that even simple questions can result in long-lasting discussions and unexpected outcomes. Never stop asking questions and dig through the JUnQ to find the hidden treasures!

— Andreas Neidlinger

[1] W. Molyneux: Letter to John Locke, 7 July 1688, in: The Correspondence of John Locke (9 vols.), E.S. de Beer (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, vol. 3, no. 1064.
[2] S. Pasewalk: „Die fuenffingrige Hand“: Die Bedeutung der sinnlichen Wahrnehmung beim spaeten Rilke, De Gruyter; Auflage: 1., 2002, pp. 106.
[3] R. Held, Y. Ostrovsky, B. de Gelder, T. Gandhi, S. Ganesh, U. Mathur, P. Sinha, Nat. Neurosci. 2011, 14, 551–553.

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