The idea that blind people have more heightened senses than the sighted has existed since ancient Greece. Scientists have recently confirmed that some blind people can perceive space and objects via echolocation, something previously thought possible only for animals such as bats and dolphins. (Thanks to this research, some sighted people have now been able to learn to echolocate, too.) There is still little data, however, on how partial hearing loss might affect the use of one’s other senses.
Part of the reason it is difficult to prove this type of compensation is that researchers prefer to study completely deaf subjects, particularly those born with hearing loss or who lost it at a young age. Full deafness has been shown to correlate with an enhanced ability to perceive moving objects; increased peripheral vision capabilities in the retina itself; and increased visual attention, sometimes even to the point that it’s no longer advantageous.
Whether these heightened abilities in the deaf have parallels in the hearing-impaired remains untested. However, many scientists and hearing-impaired persons report anecdotally that they suspect such a correlation to exist. In the case of the congenitally deaf, the brain will often “repurpose” areas normally dedicated to hearing, literally allowing for more intelligent perception. But many skills, such as lip-reading and echolocation, can be learned, and scientists agree that people tend to become more aware of their remaining senses when one is impaired, regardless of whether those sense become “heightened.” To conclude that they are also likely, at least, to learn to use their remaining sense better through increased attentiveness is a relatively small leap.
Despite how much remains to be learned, all of this research points to something long-known: workarounds and lifestyle options for the hearing-impaired continue to improve and show no signs of stopping.
This other Audicus blog post explores the phenomenon of being so engrossed in a task that one seems to lose the ability to hear things around them. It may not yet be proven that people with partial hearing loss have heightened senses. However, these people are fortunate to have access to hearing aids which enable them to regain some of their sense of sound.