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Heightened Auditory Perception Among the Blind


By Elaine Cassel

In his memoir Planet of the Blind (Dial Press, 1998), Stephen Kuusisto, legally blind from birth, recounts awakening at the age of five from surgery designed to maximize what little natural vision he had. Both eyes were heavily bandaged, a condition that lasted for several months. That is when, he said, he really learned to hear--not literally, of course, but with acute precision. Recent research verifies centuries of anecdotal reports. The blind have better hearing than those who can both see and hear.

The February, 1999 issue of Discover Magazine reports on research confirming that blind people are much better at pinpointing sounds than are sighted persons. Behavioral neuroscientist Franco Lepore at the University of Montreal tested the ability of eight totally blind participants to locate sounds that were piped randomly through 16 loudspeakers placed at ear level in a semicircle around each volunteer.

Blind participants were asked to locate the source of the sound with one ear blocked. Half of them did so perfectly, even when the sound originated on the side of the blocked ear. Sighted participants, however, had very little success pinpointing the source of sound-- whether their ears were blocked or not. Ongoing work in Lepore's lab indicates that in blind persons, sound activates regions in the brain normally reserved for vision--the occipital lobe. Other researchers have found that when blind people read Braille, they activate regions of their brains devoted to touch, the parietal lobe, as well as the occipital lobe. Yet, when sited people "read" Braille, only the parietal (touch) lobe is activated.

All of these results indicate that brain reorganization occurs in a blind person. The areas of the brain dedicated to vision are inactive, but rather than have them go to waste, so to speak, these areas are put to use to accentuate and heighten other senses.

Thus, Kuusisto's recollection—that at the age of five he began to experience heightened auditory perception in his world of total darkness—is consistent with these most recent research findings.

Resources:
Discover. (1999, February). Sounds and the sightless. Retrieved February 11, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.discover.com/feb_99/breaksound.html.

Kuusisto, S. (1998). The planet of the blind. New York: The Dial Press.


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