Blind People Remember Language Better Than Sighted People Do

Summary: A new study reveals blind people remember speech and language better than sighted people. Researchers say blind people use language as a mental tool to remember information.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Blind people can remember speech better than sighted people, but a person’s ability to see makes no difference in how they remember sound effects, found a new study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Irvine.

“It’s interesting that people who are blind only showed an advantage with verbal memory,” said senior author Marina Bedny, an associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins whose work regularly compares blind and sighted individuals’ brains.

“Blind people may use language like a mental tool to remember information.”

The findings appear in Experimental Brain Research.

Researchers conducted two memory tests with 20 blind adults and 22 blindfolded sighted adults. They wondered if blind participants would outperform sighted ones at remembering spoken sounds. First, participants listened to series of letters, followed by a delay.

Then they heard either the same series or a “foil” series where a letter is replaced or put into the wrong position. Participants then judged whether the second series of letters was the same as the first.

For the second test, they listened to letters while solving mathematical equations with proposed answers. Participants determined if equations solutions were correct, followed by reciting back the letters.

As the researchers expected, blind participants outperformed sighted ones on remembering speech. The results from another testing phase, which required solving mathematical equations and recalling letters, confirmed researchers’ predictions. Blind participants again remembered more letters than sighted participants despite being forced to multitask mentally.

“On a daily basis, blind people use their memory much more to remember things, while sighted people can rely on visual clues to recall information,” said Karen Arcos, lead author and a blind postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Santa Cruz who earned her Ph.D. at University of California, Irvine.

“We think blind people’s advantages on the verbal tests stem from increased practice remembering information. The brain area responsible for vision in sighted people, the ‘visual’ cortex, is repurposed for other functions in blind people. Perhaps it enhances blind people’s language processing.”

This shows a person's eye
Blind participants again remembered more letters than sighted participants despite being forced to multitask mentally. Image is in the public domain

In another experimental phase, participants listened to two streams of sound effects and were asked if sounds matched. The researchers used sound effects such as tones and high-pitched beeps rather than everyday sounds to ensure sounds couldn’t be labeled with words. On this task, blind and sighted people performed essentially the same.

“By using meaningless sound effects, we prevented participants from using language to remember them this lowered blind people’s usual memory advantage” said Bedny.

Bedny is now studying what enables blind people to outperform sighted people at remembering words, letters, and numbers. Moreover, she plans to examine if the “visual” cortex contributes to improved memory for speech and language in those born blind.

About this visual neuroscience and memory research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Johns Hopkins University
Contact: Press Office – Johns Hopkins University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Superior verbal but not nonverbal memory in congenital blindness” by Karen Arcos et al. Experimental Brain Research


Superior verbal but not nonverbal memory in congenital blindness

Previous studies suggest that people who are congenitally blind outperform sighted people on some memory tasks. Whether blindness-associated memory advantages are specific to verbal materials or are also observed with nonverbal sounds has not been determined.

Congenitally blind individuals (n = 20) and age and education matched blindfolded sighted controls (n = 22) performed a series of auditory memory tasks.

These included: verbal forward and backward letter spans, a complex letter span with intervening equations, as well as two matched recognition tasks: one with verbal stimuli (i.e., letters) and one with nonverbal complex meaningless sounds. Replicating previously observed findings, blind participants outperformed sighted people on forward and backward letter span tasks.

Blind participants also recalled more letters on the complex letter span task despite the interference of intervening equations. Critically, the same blind participants showed larger advantages on the verbal as compared to the nonverbal recognition task.

These results suggest that blindness selectively enhances memory for verbal material. Possible explanations for blindness-related verbal memory advantages include blindness-induced memory practice and ‘visual’ cortex recruitment for verbal processing.

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