Blind people have super hearing: True/False?

It’s treated like a kind of cosmic consolation prize: you may be blind, but at least you get super hearing, right? It is true that some blind people can do more with their ears than those who can see, but it’s probably a stretch to call it a superpower, and not all blind people have the gift.

There are numerous anecdotal accounts of blind people using sound to compensate in remarkable ways. No doubt there are some very gifted individuals out there who happen to be blind and are also gifted at using sound to make out the world. But a sighted person possesses just the same kind of hearing as the typical congenitally blind person — they just don’t notice it because they don’t rely on it.

There are a couple of things which give the super hearing idea some traction, though. First are some differences between the sighted and blind in special circumstances. In a test for locating sounds, for instance, most people fail miserably if one ear is blocked up — but perhaps as many as half of all blind people keep going in these trying circumstances. Perhaps subtle differences in such artificial situations represent more impressive differences in everyday life.

Then there is the brain. Even in the congenitally blind, the brain’s visual cortex is active. It’s active when processing tasks that wouldn’t normally require vision in a sighted person, seeming to show that the unused visual part of the brain has been co-opted by other senses. And because we are a very visually orientated species, that is a lot of brain to make use of.

For some congenitally blind people their blindness may stimulate development of the other senses beyond normal limits but probably most blind people have quite normal hearing. Unfortunately for us investigation of this area is just beginning, so you can’t really bank on these conclusions. You may feel enlightened but this is really a case of the blind leading the blind.

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