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Molyneux Redux

Published onOct 29, 2013
Molyneux Redux

In 1693, William Molyneux wrote his famous letter to John Locke where he proposed the following thought experiment. What if a man who was born blind but had learned to recognize through touch certain geometrical forms such as a sphere and a cube, were to have his sight restored by an operation, would he then be able to recognize these forms through sight alone? This hypothetical question has led to no small measure of trouble for blind people, especially once actual medical procedures replaced the imaginary one Molyneux proposed. Sight restoring operations for totally congenitally blind people are relatively rare, but speculation about them is extensive. There have only been about twenty such cases in the past thousand years, but these twenty cases are so debated and scrutinized it seems like there must be many more, even though they typically follow a predictable pattern. The patients are initially excited and overwhelmed by the visible world. Researchers give them tests and tasks, sometimes including Molyneux’s sphere versus cube test. The newly sighted patients often fail, and may become disillusioned with the whole business. The visible world is not all rainbows and sunsets. Loved ones turn out not to resemble movie stars. And there are limits to the utility of the restored sight. It is seldom enough to read print, or recognize people’s faces. Depth and distance perception may be impaired which can hinder free movement through space. When the patients opt for the familiar methods of white cane and Braille, researchers express disappointment. This is where the real trouble arises, both for the patients, and for blind people in general. They talk of this choice in terms of relapse, as if the skills of blindness were a bad habit or addiction. Researchers reinforce the belief that blindness is such an all-encompassing tragedy that even a cure cannot undo the damage. Not surprisingly, the formerly blind people get depressed. And this depression may contribute to health problems and other dire consequences.

Molyneux stipulated that the patients must be both totally and congenitally blind, and his modern followers slavishly comply. Researchers worry that a person who became blind even only a few years after birth might retain some visual memories which would influence their post-operative perceptions. The problem for researchers is that total congenital blindness is relatively rare in the industrialized world today, occurring in only about three births in ten thousand. Many of the common causes of infantile blindness that existed in earlier periods of human history have been eliminated through vaccines, antibiotics, improved sanitation and diet. Even totally, congenitally blind people in the industrialized world tend to have  mainstream educations and to be exposed to all sorts of visual terms and concepts. Though second-hand and hearsay, this knowledge might also taint experimental results. For a researcher to find someone totally blind since birth, who has not been exposed to visual terminology, he will have to look to the third world. In developing countries, total, congenital blindness occurs in about eight births in ten thousand, and blind children are probably less likely to have a mainstream education or any education at all. Studying such subjects however, raises ethical issues about cultural and scientific imperialism. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could find such a subject closer to home?

Allow me to propose a new thought experiment. Let’s imagine a woman (for a change) born totally blind who has grown up in a remote rural area of the US, perhaps off the grid in a libertarian, survivalist cult. She is otherwise normal—average intelligence though home-schooled. Of course her parents would mistrust the public school system, abhor technology and the internet. So her education would be of a particularly limited kind. She would not have access to Braille books except perhaps for certain libertarian tracts which someone might have gone to the trouble to transcribe for her. But her parents, and the others in the cult, being remarkably sensitive on her behalf, have purged these texts, and their own speech, of any references to visual phenomena. She has no knowledge of color, perspective, reflection, transparency or any other vision-related term. It is this fact, more even than her total congenital blindness, that makes her irresistible to researchers. How did they learn of her existence? Well, as the members of the cult would be quick to point out, big government, and the big medical science it funds, have their ways.

So somehow the researchers get wind of her existence and connive a way to abduct her. She finds herself transported to a lab in a major research facility far from home. After an initial period of home-sickness and dislocation, she settles in quite nicely. The lab, while alien, is at least warm and dry. The food is abundant and she is not required to perform any chores apart from her daily interviews with the researchers.

These consist mainly in the researchers repeating various words and asking her to define or explain them. They say, “When people say ‘I see what you mean,’ what do you think they’re talking about?” Or else: “Do you know what a mirror is? How does a mirror work?” And sometimes: “Which do you think is the most valuable sense—sight or touch?”

She goes along with this. She has a compliant nature. After all, she grew up off the grid among some pretty volatile personalities. On long winter evenings, when someone broke out a jug of the vodka they distilled from their surplus potatoes, the talk could get aggressive, even violent. So from an early age she learned to go along with whatever seemed to be the opinions and desires of those in charge.

At first, the only aspect of the research that she finds remotely annoying is the obsession with spheres and cubes. The researchers are forever carting out different versions of the forms, in all sizes and made of all sorts of material–wood, glass, paper, and something they call plastic. They pose the same question, utterly without irony, “Can you tell us which is the sphere and which the cube?” Of course she does so without fail. “Sphere, cube, sphere, cube,” she repeats, unerringly, careful to mimic their serious demeanor.

She starts to think of it as a service she performs for these people—a job. Clearly, these people cannot make this distinction on their own. She imagines them separating the objects in different cupboards, then different rooms—the sphere room and the cube room—since they have previously had no other way to tell one from the other.

They give her something they call a raised line drawing kit. It consists of a rectangular board overlaid with a thin sheet of plastic. This plastic is everywhere. Then they hand her a short pointed stick and show her how when she presses into the surface of the board through the sheet of plastic, lines are left behind that she can touch. She feigns pleasure with this new gadget. It is not unlike making marks with a stick in the dirt or mud, though she admits that there might be an advantage in that the lines on the plastic sheet are more permanent and cleaner. They say, “Would you like to draw us a picture?”

“Would I…? Would I like to…?” she falters.

“Yes, you know, you could show us what the sphere and cube feel like.”

“Why would I want to do that?” she wonders, when they could just reach out and touch the objects for themselves. So perhaps that is the problem, she muses. Perhaps these people have no sense of touch. How tragic, she thinks, and her annoyance abates a bit.

“For instance,” one offers, making marks on the plastic, “which of these would you say best represents the sphere and which the cube?”

She examines the board and finds that he has drawn a circle and a square. How can any of this represent what the objects feel like? These are lines on a flat surface, when the objects have volume, depth, temperature, texture. It’s as if they think you feel things with your fingertips alone. Because she’s beginning to feel sorry for them in their deprived state, she takes a new sheet and makes marks. The cube is easier. She jabs at the board eight times to imitate the sharp corners. The jabbing makes a small pucker in the plastic, which is not quite sharp enough, but she supposes it might suggest something. For the sphere, she sweeps the stick around the board in a swoopy undulation she hopes will be suggestive of the way the curves of the sphere conform to the curves of her cupped palms.

The silence as they examine her handiwork is stunning and profound. But then they begin to chatter and cluck amongst themselves. She surmises that she has once again gotten the answer wrong. There is really no satisfying these people.

On another day, they make her lie down on a table which slides into a massive metal tube which emits all sorts of sound. They call this an MRI machine and tell her not to move her head. Then they give her more spheres and cubes to touch. Then they give her a couple of pages of Braille to read. “Let there be light,” she reads.

“What does that mean?” they ask her once they’ve gotten her out of the machine again. “What is light?”

She thinks for a minute. She senses that this is a trick question. “The opposite of heavy,” she says.

There’s some murmuring. “But that doesn’t make any sense grammatically,” they say. “If that were its meaning, the sentence should be, ‘Let there be light-ness.’”

Inwardly she thinks, “Hey, I didn’t write the sentence. I just read the words on the page.” But outwardly, she simply shakes her head and smiles in a way she hopes they will take as apologetic.

They tell her that they are going to perform an operation to restore her sight. She does not point out to them that since she has never had sight, it’s a misnomer to call it restoration. But she can tell by the husky excitement in their voices that they expect her to be happy about this. They say, “Just think! You’ll be able to see colors, to look at yourself in a mirror, to look through telescopes, through microscopes. Your life will be so much more meaningful and rich.”

“If you say so,” she says to herself but never aloud.

At last, the big day arrives. They perform the operation. They implant state of the art synthetic lenses so that once the bandages are removed she will be receiving optimal visual stimuli. After several days of drugged bed rest, the bandages are removed. She is instructed to open her eyes. Her first impression is of extreme pain, but pain of a very unusual sort. It’s as if someone is stabbing her in the forehead. She immediately puts her hands over her eyes, and the sensation vanishes. “That’s the light!” they tell her. “That’s seeing!”

“So that explains it,” she thinks. If these people are walking around constantly bombarded by this sensation, no wonder they’re so strange. In fact, it even explains the behavior of everyone back home in the cult. No wonder there was so much talk about blowing people up.

It takes a while, but the researchers persuade her to uncover her eyes and keep her eyelids up. One of them gently guides her head to move slowly from left to right, then back again. As she does this, the sensation changes. She notices differences, but cannot say what the differences mean. She can’t say she likes it much. It’s making her feel a little dizzy, and very tired.

At last, the researcher stops her head, and says, “On that table, there’s a sphere and a cube. Can you tell which is which?”

“On the table?” she thinks. “What table?” Instinctively, she starts to lift her hand.

“No, no, no,” several of them say. “No touching. Do it with your eyes.”

They are also breathless and expectant. Despite the pain and the annoyance, she really would like to comply. And her hope is that if she indulges them, they will let her close her eyes and go back to sleep.

The researcher swivels her head slightly one way then the other. “On the left there. Is that the sphere or the cube? And on the right here. What do you think? Cube? Sphere?”

She thinks she might throw up. But she has enough presence of mind to notice the order of his question. “The sphere is on the left,” she pronounces. “The cube is on the right.”

There is an eruption of applause and then the telltale clicking noise she has been told is typing on laptops. Their voices rise above the usual hushed tones as they exclaim over the marvelousness of this response. The researcher releases her head and she closes her eyes in relief.

This goes on for a period of weeks. Each day she experiences less pain. She gets used to what she comes to understand is the light. She can distinguish it from the darkness. This is established after several hours of controlled experiments where a graduate student switches the lights on and off and asks her to tell when she sees or does not see light. She begins to distinguish objects from empty space, though it feels a bit random to her. A researcher asks her, “Can you see my face.” She identifies what must be his face from the familiar sound of his voice emanating from one collection of swirls and pulsations.

Then another researcher gets excited and urges, “Now me, now me!” She shifts her head in that direction and raises her finger to point as they’ve taught her. But unless they’re talking to her, she can’t tell one swirling, throbbing visual array from another.

They teach her the names of colors. She can perceive the utility in this. It helps to be able to say “that red thing,” versus “that blue one over there.” Some colors are easier than others. Or more accurately, she has an easier time creating mnemonics for the names of some colors than for others. For instance, to show her what orange is, they give her an orange, so she associates the word with the color, the feel of the fruits form, the slightly pocked texture of its skin, and its aroma and flavor. (One thing she has to say about life at the lab—there’s no shortage of fruit.) But other colors are more difficult. For instance, they show her a lot of food that’s green–grapes, cucumbers, lettuce—and she doesn’t quite catch the similarities.

They start showing her pictures—illustrations from children’s story books, reproductions from art books, advertisements in magazines. She likes it when there’s a lot of color. When the colors are muted, or merely shades of gray, the pictures do nothing for her. Then they ask her questions, “Can you trace the woman’s face?” and “Which object seems closer to you, the bowl or the vase of flowers?”

Her exasperation bubbles over. “What are you talking about? What bowl? What vase of flowers? It’s just colors on paper.”

As usual, they refuse to acknowledge their delusions. They are too busy bumping into each other in their mad rush to record her astounding statements. They put her back into the MRI machine. “Keep your eyes on the screen,” they tell her through her earphones.

“What screen?” she yells ineffectually over the din. “Let me out of here!”

They bring in a psychologist. “You seem a bit irritable today,” he says. “Do you feel depressed at all? Any suicidal ideation?”

More homicidal than anything else, she thinks, but doesn’t say.

They show her television, but she only really attends to the sounds. She asks if she could have a book to read. They produce a book in print. The pages at first look blank to her. When she presses her face close she can see irregular patterns of horizontal gray lines. “No, I meant…” and she moves her hands along the table top in her Braille-reading pattern.

“Don’t you want to learn to read print?” they say. “We could enlarge the print for you. Look here.” They direct her attention to a computer screen. “See here’s an A. Here’s B.”

“But…I already know how to read,” she says.

She becomes aware that the researchers are publishing their findings about her. She’s left alone for days at a time with no one but the graduate student of the light versus darkness experiment while the others go off to present papers at conferences and do interviews on TV. She cajoles her minder into letting her hear one of these presentations. She recognizes the senior researcher’s voice as he drones on about her brain, her neurons, her synapses, and the implications about neural plasticity. Apparently he projects images of her brain before and after the operation, and videos of her imperfectly performing various tasks. She is perturbed by the portrait of her damage and ineptitude. From the grad student, who is a bit sulky at being left behind while the others get all the credit even for the study that he designed, she learns that in all their papers they identify her only by the initials BG. These have nothing to do with her actual initials. He admits that the initials stand for Blind Girl. “Blind girl?” she thinks, “But I’m not a blind girl anymore. You took my blindness away from me. I’m not blind. I’m not sighted. I’m…what am I?”

When they return, the senior researchers ask her if her blindness was genetic. Does she have a blind brother or sister back home? It gives her a pang of longing to think that they might be done with her now, and will return her to the cult. Not that there is anyone there to replace her. And she worries that it will not be easy to re-enter her former life. She’s learned to get around with her sight, though her movements are halting and uncertain. She often feels dizzy, so if the researchers are not looking, she closes her eyes. She has no depth perception. She’s learned that this is what it’s called. When she attempts to lay her hand on an object, she misses ninety percent of the time. The only way to improve her record is to close her eyes when they’re not looking and resort to her former methods. She worries that if they return her to the cult, she won’t be able to perform her daily chores—feeding the chickens, weeding the garden, cleaning the firearms. She fears she will be condemned as useless.

Try as I might, I can imagine no happy ending for this story. I’d like to engineer an escape for her, but where would she go, and how would she get there? Eventually the researchers will lose interest in her, especially when she fails to progress to full sightedness. Perhaps the disgruntled grad student will put her in touch with one of the blind advocacy organizations who would encourage her to hang on to her blindness skills and disregard the distractions of the new sight if it’s not useful to her. She is still blind enough to receive vocational training and so could find some gainful employment. But the grad student like the other researchers, operates in a simple blindness versus sightedness binary; they are not interested in the lived experience of blind and visually impaired people. They only care about the degree to which her brain adapts to her new vision, not the choices she might make about how and when to use it. And so it will be with our fantasy formerly blind woman. She will be left in an alien world with imperfect sight and spoiled blindness and no way to get back home.


Georgina Kleege teaches creative writing and disability studies at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her recent books include: Sight Unseen (Yale University Press, 1999) and Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller (Gallaudet University Press, 2006).  Kleege’s current work is concerned with blindness and visual art: how blindness is represented in art, how blindness affects the lives of visual artists, how museums can make visual art accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. She has lectured and served as consultant to art institutions around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London.

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