August 26, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

What Would a Man Born Blind See With New Eyes?

The Bible records an instance of a man born blind miraculously healed, who was immediately able to walk and recognize things.  Scientists had doubted whether a blind person suddenly able to see would understand the world of vision at all, or be able to make any sense of his new sense.  Then a real world case in 1959 provided an opportunity to learn, when Sidney Bradford, blind from infancy, at age 52 had an operation to restore his sight.  Investigator Richard Gregory in Nature1 records “the blind leading the sighted”— as Bradford’s eyes opened to the world of vision for the first time

We found a cheerful, confident, middle-aged man who was willing to be investigated and who, so far as we could tell then or later, was truthful and honest.  But an initial shock nearly made us turn back with the disappointment that this must be a put-up job, or at least a Great Mistake: he correctly read the time on the clock in the ward.  Could he have guessed it?  Borrowing a nurse’s alarm clock, we set its hands to various positions, and he told us the times it showed.  Taking a large watch, which had no glass, from the top pocket of his jacket, he told its time by rapidly touching its hands, as he had done for many years.  So he could see immediately, from earlier touch experience.  At least for us, this was a turning point for understanding vision.

Bradford also quickly learned to read and recognize objects, but had trouble initially with optical illusions and perspective.  Nevertheless, his sense of touch prepared him for the visual world.  Some scientists and philosophers had thought each sense acted separately, but this case showed there is “cross-modal transfer” between them.  Another case in 2000, Mike May, mirrored the experience of Bradford.  These findings were, to Gregory, “an eye-opening experience of the wonders of perception.”

1Richard Gregory, “The blind leading the sighted,” Nature 430, 836 (19 August 2004); doi:10.1038/430836a.

It becomes less an issue with these observations to consider how a blind man, miraculously healed, could have picked up his mat and walked, and made sense of the new world around him, as skeptics might complain.  Of course, any Miracle Worker capable of healing the blind could also heal the complete neural sensory and interpretive apparatus along with it.

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