A thought experiment formulated by William Molyneux in the late 17th century contemplated a simple but puzzling question. Could a person who was blind from birth, but familiar with the feel of shapes like spheres and cubes, if given the ability to see, recognize those objects by sight alone? The answer might seem intuitively simple for some, yet debatable to others.
The trouble is that from the time this question was first asked, until very recently, there was no means to try the experiment. Medical science had not been able to give the gift of sight to anyone that hadn’t had it at the time of birth. But that has since changed, and the problem, nearly 430 years old, has been solved.
An experiment was started in 2003 by Pawan Sinha at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The goal was to find several individuals who all met specific criteria that would aide in the answering of this question. Eventually, five individuals were selected for the study, all between the ages of 8 and 17. None of them had the ability to see at any point in the lives beyond a mild sensitivity to light and dark, they could all identify a set of objects by touch, and had forms of blindness that could potentially be treated with surgery.
Between 2007 and 2010, all five participants underwent surgery, and each of them was given the full ability to see. Within 48 hours of the procedure, each was administered a carefully engineered test. Objects that had been previously identified by the subjects by touch alone were presented to them once again, only this time there were only allowed to look. The results of the tests were collected, analyzed, and a definitive conclusion was reached.
The final answer to Molyneux’s problem was no, they were unable to form a cognitive connection between the feel of the object’s shape and it’s appearance, and could not identify the objects by sight alone. In fact, the accuracy of all five patients was lower than if they had simply guessed at random.
However, the same test was repeated 5 days, 7 days, and 5 months later, and it was found that significant improvements can be made with practice and familiarity.