Can We See with Our Noses And Hear with Our Fingers? (Apr, 1923)

I would say no to the first and maybe to the second. However there is some dispute about Willetta Huggins’ abilities. Her claims were tested and at least partially validated by reputable scientists, of the day. However, Willetta fully recovered her hearing and vision a few years later and attributed the miraculous recovery to the healing power of Christian Science which lends a lot of credence to the idea that she never was blind or deaf.

At least that’s what it says in The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States

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Can We See with Our Noses And Hear with Our Fingers?

Amazing Feats of 17-Year-Old Blind and Deaf Girl, Who Smells Colors and Feels Sound, Convince Scientists that Unused Powers Lie Asleep in Our Senses

CAN we learn to see with our noses? Can we learn to hear with our finger tips? Can we develop eyes in the backs of our heads or wherever else we happen to need them?

The amazing case of Willetta Huggins, the 17-year-old blind and deaf girl of Janesville, Wis., makes these questions much less fantastic than they would have seemed a year ago. For Willetta can do some of these things.

While we human beings have been developing to a high degree our senses of sight and hearing, have we failed to develop at the same rate our senses of smell and touch? The accomplishments of this little girl, handicapped from babyhood, seem to prove that this is so.

She Smells Color!

Willetta can recognize colors by their smell. She can hear spoken words by placing the sensitive tips of her fingers against the throat of the speaker. She can identify different people by their personal odors. She knows, even, when the family cat enters the room for a moment and then leaves.

Physicians and psychologists are still debating the exact nature and extent of Willetta’s powers. Scientific tests of her case are still in progress. There seems little doubt, however, from the experiments made that she really does possess a remarkable development of the senses of smell and of touch.

When she was nine years old, Willetta was left an orphan. A year later she was admitted to the Wisconsin School for the Blind at Janesville. She was then partly blind and nearly deaf. Within five years she had lost what remained of her hearing and a year later she became totally blind.

Under this double misfortune she grew, as was natural, somewhat morose and listless. For a time she showed little interest in anything. Suddenly this changed. She was introduced by her teachers to Helen Keller’s method of “hearing” by feeling the lips.

Her Interest Is Awakened Almost overnight Willetta lost her listlessness and indifference. She not only found out that she could use the method made famous by Miss Keller, but she discovered a better method. She found that when she placed the tips of her fingers on the throat of a person who was speaking, she could “feel” what was said merely by the vibrations of the throat. It was not necessary for her to touch the lips at all.

This unusual ability and the rapidity with which she learned the use of it, attracted the attention of her teachers and of the medical men attached to the institution. It was found that her sense of smell was no less extraordinary. The fame of her accomplishments spread. Attention was attracted in Chicago and on April 26, 1922, Willetta was examined before the Chicago Medical Society.

There is still some controversy about exactly what she can do, but the following facts are well attested: She can recognize spoken sounds when her fingers are touching the throat of the speaker. She insists that she does not hear the sounds. She says that she “feels” them. She can also feel sounds in the same way through a wooden rod, such as a billiard cue, one end of which is pressed against the chest of the speaker, the other end of which she touches.

She carries around with her a portable telephone of the kind used by deaf people, but she does not put it to her ear. Instead, she touches the vibrating diaphragm in the telephone with the tips of her fingers. She asserts that she feels the vibrations of sound in this way. She has been able, under test, to hear concerts and stage performances and to describe correctly what was happening. Aided by her telephonic apparatus, she can carry on a conversation with all the ease of a person who has perfect hearing.

Feels the Ink on Newspapers She can read newspaper headlines, the denominations of paper money, and similar matter printed in large type merely by running her fingers over it. She says she feels the ink on the paper: There is little doubt, also, that she can really smell colors. In a series of careful tests arranged by Dr. Thomas J. Wiliams, of Chicago, and Professor Robert H. Gault, of the Department of Psychology of Northwestern University, Willetta’s eyes were thoroughly blindfolded by a pair of black goggles stuffed and covered with cotton and fastened down to her forehead by adhesive tape. She named correctly the colors of 30 samples of yarn as well as many other colored objects. This was done even without touching the yarns, merely by smelling them when they were held close to the end of a glass tube about four inches long.

What Sceptics Say The doctors who disbelieve in the reality of Willetta’s powers explain these accomplishments as due to unconscious deception on her part. The girl’s eyes and ears do not show any perceptible injury. If she is really blind and deaf, it is because of some trouble in her brain or in the nerves leading to it, not in the eye or ear themselves. The skeptics point to this fact. They say that she is not really deaf nor blind at all; that she merely thinks she is and thinks it so intensely that for all practical purposes she really cannot see or hear.

This would be quite possible. Such cases are common enough in the records of psychology. They are instances of extreme autosuggestion; harmful autosuggestion instead of the curative variety. – But that this is the case with Willetta seems doubtful. Whatever may be the real explanation of her marvelous powers, any kind of shamming, even unconscious shamming, seems to have been out of the question in the tests when Willetta was blindfolded. Even if her eyes had been normal, she could not have seen the colored yarns.

Then there are some additional experiments of Professor Gault on normal people, people with unimpaired equipment of eyes and ears. These experiments are even more significant than Willetta’s case in supporting the idea that all of us may have unsuspected possibilities of sense development.

Among his students Professor Gault has discovered two persons who have the beginnings of Willetta’s ability to smell colors. They can distinguish by smell alone whether two samples of colored yarn are alike or different. They are not able, as yet, to name each of the colors as Willetta does, but it is reasonable to believe that they possess the same power, the only difference being that they have not been forced to develop these powers of their other senses.

Professor Gault is testing, also, the possibility that normal persons can learn to feel sound in the same way as Willetta does. By means of the speaking-tube apparatus illustrated below, one of Professor Gault’s students has already taught himself to distinguish five different words merely by the feel of them on the palm of his hand.

These results are sufficiently startling. Can it be possible, one asks, that Willetta Huggins differs from the rest of us only in that she happens to know how to use senses that all of us possess but have neglected?

How Earthworms See The biologist is inclined to say that it is quite possible. The common earthworm, for instance, has only one kind of nerves. His only sense, apparently, is the sense of touch. He has no eyes nor ears nor any sort of organ corresponding to our nose. Yet the earthworm can see, and will withdraw quickly into his burrow if you turn a light on him. He can hear perfectly the noise you make when you stamp your foot on the ground. He can smell his favorite foods some little distance away and he never makes a mistake about them.

Evidently the touch nerves in his body perform for him the functions of all the kinds of nerves; they are his eyes, his ears, and his nose.

In the course of evolution, these touch nerves of the earthworm, competent for any kind of duty, have developed into our special senses. Our eye, for instance, originated as a part of a sensitive plate of touch nerves on the heads of some of the lowest backboned animals. Our ear seems to have grown out of some little hairlike organs on the heads of fishes; organs used, apparently, to detect vibrations in the water.

Nerve Powers Long Unused And it may be that our nerves, even after all these millions of years of training for some special job, have not forgotten that they used to be able to do all the jobs; that one and the same nerve was once the carrier of messages relative to all five of our present senses.

This seems to be the biological lesson of the case of Willetta Huggins.

It seems to follow, even more clearly, from the experiments of Professor Gault. And further evidence comes from Professor Louis Farigoule in France, who reported some months ago that he had been able to train certain men among a group of blinded soldiers so that they could perceive light by their finger tips..

It is possible that we stand on the threshold of amazing and revolutionary discoveries concerning our senses. We may be able not only to better the lot of those unfortunates who are blind or deaf, but to rediscover in ourselves capacities of smell and touch, perhaps of other senses which we do not dream we possess.

  1. squeeziecat says: March 17, 20085:38 am

    chances are pretty good hat she was suffering from “conversion disorder”, an rare psychologicial response that causes a person to go blind for no apparent physiological reason during times of extreme stress.

    I’ve known 2 people to suffer from this disorder – one was a teenaged girl who was an anxious academic perfectionist heading into school exams, the other a sweet-natured but academically slow pre-teen boy who was being bullied. both made full recoveries after the stressors were dealt with.

  2. squeeziecat says: March 17, 20085:38 am

    “Tommy can you hear me?”

    chances are pretty good that she was suffering from “conversion disorder”, an rare psychologicial response that causes a person to go blind for no apparent physiological reason during times of extreme stress.

    I’ve known 2 people to suffer from this disorder – one was a teenaged girl who was an anxious academic perfectionist heading into school exams, the other a sweet-natured but academically slow pre-teen boy who was being bullied. both made full recoveries after the stressors were dealt with.

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