Sight vs. Sound: Can Blind People Hear Better?
Many movies and stories have delved into the concept of protagonists with a disability. A common trope in these stories is the concept of superior senses. In most cases of blind superheroes, they compensate for their lack of sight with enhanced hearing. Combined with their wit and ingenuity, they’re able to succeed using their developed hearing.
This has caused many people to wonder: how much of this is true? Obviously, humans aren’t capable of most superpowers seen in movies, but do blind people truly hear better than those with sight?
However, before we can understand how blind and partially sighted people process sound, we have to understand how those with sight use their hearing in the first place.
How hearing helps sighted people
Our hearing obviously helps us by allowing us to communicate and listen to the sounds around us. Many people take these aspects of their hearing for granted, especially those with both sight and hearing. However, this core sense helps us in ways we might not even notice.
We use the sounds of passing vehicles to determine whether it’s safe to cross the street. While most people look both ways before crossing, many will walk faster if they hear a truck speeding up. Our hearing also allows us to keep our balance, especially when our eyes are closed. In the shower, many people will unknowingly use the sound of falling water to stay balanced while rinsing their hair.
Most people don’t notice the ways they use sound. They’ve lived their entire lives with sight and hearing, so they don’t consider the subtle ways we use our senses.
Blind people use sound in a much more direct way. Audio cues can help them establish spatial awareness, allowing blind people to find their way and avoid knocking into things. For example, the sound from a TV might let them know that they’re getting close to a wall near the television. From there, they can use their hearing to determine where the television is, how far away they are, and which way they need to go.
The sound of a tapping cane can also help with spatial awareness. While canes are mostly used to judge distances and find obstacles, they can also produce different sounds depending on the surface. If a blind person is transitioning from walking on tile to walking on carpet, the sound will change. While subtle, this can keep them from stumbling.
Misconceptions about better hearing
A broad statement like “blind people can hear better” isn’t always true. While people who went blind early in life typically notice a wider range of sounds and pitches, some blind people do not have advanced hearing. Studies have also shown that while blind people tend to hear better on the horizontal plane, many of them struggle to identify sounds on the vertical plane.
It is true that most blind people become more attuned to sounds after losing their sight. Humans naturally compensate by relying on their other senses, and hearing is one of the primary senses after sight. However, being blind does not automatically make them better at hearing. Their advanced hearing is something they developed over time.
The same thing can happen to those who still have the ability to see. If you’ve ever wandered around in the dark, taken off your glasses, or lost your contact lenses, you might have relied on hearing and touch until your sight was restored. Able-bodied people naturally lean on their sight more than any other sense, but humans can adapt to survive without it.
A common misconception is that blind people’s ears become more sensitive after they lose their sight. This is untrue. Most blind people have perfectly normal ears — their brain is the organ that is adapting to the new situation.
Adaptations of the visual cortex
In many cases of enhanced hearing, the visual centre of the brain learns to respond to sound waves. All of these areas are connected, so certain parts of the brain might perform new or additional tasks to maintain order. Your brain naturally wants to make things easy on you, so it will adapt according to your circumstances. These adaptations can happen quickly, and the longer the situation occurs, the more hard-wired these changes become.
One example involves a similar situation. If you arrange your furniture a certain way, your brain will adapt so you don’t knock into things while moving around your house. This is why you always bump your toes and hips for a few days after moving your table and couch. Your brain hasn’t adapted to the new order, so you no longer subconsciously avoid corners and chairs.
Likewise, people who suffer from hearing loss adapt to use other senses. This can be stressful for the brain, so many audiologists recommend regular hearing tests and hearing aids.
Do visually impaired people actually hear better?
There is no definite answer. While many of these people are capable of identifying sounds and pitches more acutely, this is a side effect of their brain’s adaptations. No parts of their ears, ear canals, or cochlea were changed after they lost their sight. Their brain’s visual cortex and hearing centres just adapted to their new situation, making it easier on them to lead comfortable lives.
Blind and partially sighted people typically have more experience using their other senses, creating the illusion that they have “supernatural” hearing. There’s nothing supernatural about their ability to hear, it’s just been enhanced through practice and adaptation. People that use human “echolocation” have also undergone hours of training and conditioning in order to hone this ability.
It’s also important to note that sighted people are capable of training themselves to pick up on sound better. Studies show that sighted people are capable of learning human echolocation, but they might not find much point in doing so. It’s not necessary for their survival, so the skill will go largely unused.
So yes, while blind people can hear better in some ways, this is not an inherent ability or a superpower. Our brains are complex, and blind people just have different wiring and skills than sighted people.
Do you think your hearing is normal or does it feel a bit different compared to last year? Check your hearing with our quick and easy online hearing test.