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Indian blind kids help scientists solve mystery over eyesight

Scientists from India, the US and the Netherlands have answered one of the world's most famous philosophical questions aided by Indian blind children. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.

delhi Updated: Apr 11, 2011 01:13 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

Scientists from India, the US and the Netherlands have answered one of the world's most famous philosophical questions - a 300-year-old problem that intrigued Locke, Hume, Berkeley and other legendary thinkers - aided by Indian blind children.

People born blind and taught to identify objects using touch likely cannot, on gaining sight, immediately identify the same objects using only vision, the researchers have concluded in findings published on Sunday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The findings are the most emphatic reply yet to the famous Molyneux Problem that has perplexed philosophers and neuroscientists since the 17th century when philosopher William Molyneux posed the question to his friend, fellow thinker John Locke.

But the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, Dr Shroff's Eye Hospital and Tilburg University also concluded that touch-vision correlation can be built within five days of gaining sight.

"Besides providing an answer to a long-standing philosophical question, this result also has basic scientific and applied significance," MIT professor and one of the authors Pawan Sinha said.

The findings are based on experiments conducted with five children between the ages of 8 and 17 who were born blind - at the time they gained sight under Project Prakash, a research programme aimed at understanding how the brain understands objects, scenes and sequences.

The original problem posed by Molyneux - who had a blind wife - involved if a person born blind and trained to identify cubes from spheres using touch can, on gaining sight, immediately identify the same objects using vision.

The research also suggests the brain can mould itself till late childhood to acquire proficiency across the visual and tactile - touch-based -- senses.