Suggested reading: Seeing and somethingness

by Nicholas Humphrey

The cover of New Scientist magazine 50 years ago showed a picture of a rhesus monkey, with the headline ‘A Blind Monkey That Sees Everything’. The monkey, named Helen, was part of a study into the neuropsychology of vision, led by Lawrence (Larry) Weiskrantz in the psychology laboratory at the University of Cambridge. In 1965, he had surgically removed the primary visual cortex at the back of Helen’s brain. Following the operation, Helen appeared to be quite blind. When, as a PhD student, I met her a year later, it seemed nothing had changed.

But something puzzled me. In mammals, there are two main pathways from the eye to the brain: an evolutionarily ancient one – the descendant of the visual system used by fish, frogs and reptiles – that goes to the optic tectum in the mid-brain, and a newer one that goes up to the cortex. In Helen, the older visual system was still intact. If a frog can see using the optic tectum, why not Helen?

While Weiskrantz was away at a conference, I took the chance to investigate further. I sat with Helen and played with her, offering her treats for any attempt to engage with me by sight. To my delight, she began to respond. Within a few hours, I had her reaching out to take pieces of apple from my hand; within a week, she was reaching out to touch a small flashing light… Seven years later (as shown in the video below), she was running round a complex arena, deftly avoiding obstacles, picking up peanuts from the floor. … (continue at Aeon)

2 Comments

  1. Humphrey said “qualia.” Did he check with Dennett first?

    His analogy with “Moby-Dick” is very good.

    And, as a biologist, your take on his “sentition” Idea?

    And, the kicker? (Aside from him ignoring or not knowing, or omitting them because extinct, that dinosaurs were also warm-blooded.) Interesting. And, especially since I, like you, have noted the amount of hype about the octopus in recent years, I agree with his take on them not demonstrating sentience.

    And, I’ll keep an eye open for his book!

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