Are people with vision or hearing loss able to develop their other senses as a means to compensate for their impairment? Randal A. Burd, Jr. investigates.
Freelance columnist Rich Maloof is often quoted in response to the question of sensory compensation. His reflection in an MSN article entitled “Blind People Hear Better: Truth or Myth?” straightforwardly accuses the questioner of wishful-thinking: “We like to think those who lack a sense that so richly informs our lives are able to make up the difference.”
Maloof’s statement is unequivocally true; however, the answer to our original question, affirmative or negative, exists independent of our wishful-thinking. The question of sensory compensation can also usually be found as a pair of questions: “Can blind people hear better than those who can see?” and “Can deaf people see better than those who can hear?”
Can Blind People Hear Better Than Those Who Can See?
Confusion as to whether people who have been blind from birth have superior hearing to those who can see is not surprising given the variety of opinions (both educated and not) available for perusal on the Internet. A Google search for an answer to this question results in an overwhelming deluge of conflicting information. Thankfully, savvy researchers who are able to sift through sources and accurately determine credibility will find that recent scientific studies, published only after undergoing the rigor of peer-review, have come to surprisingly similar conclusions.
An international team of researchers led by neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center have answered the question regarding whether those with sensory impairments may have other super senses in the affirmative. A press release from GUMC dated October 6, 2010, explains the research, which was published the same month in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Neuron. The research indicates how brains of people who are blind from birth can rewire themselves to process auditory stimuli with the assistance of the visual cortex. This ability has been dubbed cross-modal neuroplasticity.
Can Deaf People See Better Than Those Who Can Hear?
Given the previous information regarding the blind, it should now be less surprising that the deaf have similarly been shown to possess better eyesight than those who can hear. By using the same concept of cross-modal neuroplasticity as discussed earlier, researchers have discovered the brain can reprogram its hardware designed for hearing, the primary auditory cortex in this case, to assist in processing visual stimuli. Thus, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience which was conducted by researchers at the Department of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon, being congenitally deaf does affect (and potentially can enhance) the way visual stimuli are processed in the brain.
While there is a deluge of conflicting information regarding how other senses work in people with sensory impairments, recently published, peer-reviewed, scientific research indicates a process dubbed cross-modal neuroplasticity allows the brain to rewire unused equipment, allowing visual and auditory cortexes to help process different stimuli if that sense is otherwise impaired. While many sources claim that those with sensory impairment are simply able to focus more with their other senses, science indicates the perceived enhancement of other senses is more than just a matter of focus.