Dr. Pawash Sinha: Our Miraculous Brains

By Shlomo Maital

 Dr Pawash Sinha

   The Dec. 12 issue of the APA Monitor has a fascinating interview with MIT Prof. Pawan Sinha and his Project Prakash (“light” in Sanskrit).

     His research question was this: Over 300 years ago, an Irish philosopher named William Molyneux asked, ‘does the brain come prepared with knowledge to interact with the world?’, (nativism), or ‘does the brain have to acquire that knowledge through experience’? (empiricism).

   Dr. Sinha studied Indian children born with cataracts, to families too poor to pay for surgery. These children grew up sightless, until 10-14 years later, for a happy few, cataract surgery restored their sight. Some 440 children were treated; Dr. Sinha thinks there are 200,000-300,000 who are still untreated, and hence blind.

  Molyneux observed, if you have a person blind from birth, who has learned to distinguish between, say, a cube and a sphere, by touch – and then suddenly restored their sight – then show them a cube and a sphere, but without TOUCHING either — would they be able to tell them apart just by sight? If they can at once: then, nativists are right. If not, then empiricists.

Sinha tried this on some of the children whose sight was restored. Children who had just regained sight were presented with pairs of objects. They would feel one object, hidden under a bedsheet; then, that object, and a distractor object, were placed in front of the child. The child was asked, “which of these two objects were you just touching?”

  Immediately after surgery, children could not “transfer knowledge from touch to vision”. They could not by sight alone identify the object. But when the children returned for a follow-up, a week after surgery, they showed almost perfect ‘transfer’ (ability to transfer seeing by touch to seeing by seeing)! The brain learned rapidly, in a matter of just a week or so.

   Once again, we learn how amazingly flexible and rapid the brain adjusts. But we must be infinitely sad there are so many blind children in India, when a simple operation could restore their sight.    This is unacceptable.  Do you know that world military spending in 2011 was $1.7 trillion, back to 1988  Cold War levels?   A tiny fraction of that spending would give sight to many thousands of Indian children.  This is simply unacceptable!

To learn more about Project Prakash, see www.apa.org/monitor/digital/Prakash.aspx