Do blind people have heightened senses? I’ve seen this question asked a lot, and the short answer is yes, and no.
The definition of blind is a complex one. Some people do have absolutely no sight and live in visual darkness, but for most, blindness is something between total darkness and the need to wear glasses to read. The legal definition of blindness constitutes a loss of vision in one eye, a limited field of vision, or severe visual impairment in other ways. In my case, I have the use of both eyes and have a severe visual impairment. With glasses, my vision corrects to 20/400 in the best lighting conditions. Defining legal blindness by acuity begins around 20/200. Because of my poor vision and the other issues that surround my vision (check my previous post here for more details), I feel very qualified to answer the above question. Also, as someone who has been accused of having enhanced senses for most of my life, I can see the importance of answering this question.
There are so many ways to become blind. A person can be born blind, as in my case, or a person can develop a disorder or experience an injury that causes him or her to go blind later in life. I cannot speak as to differences between those situations, but I know that being born blind has left me with only one experience in life, blindness. I don’t know what it’s like to see like most people do, so I don’t feel that profound sense of loss that those who lose their vision later in life may feel. That loss must be intense, and I know that most people imagine going blind is the absolute worst thing that could happen to them. I can’t say I disagree, but I can say that millions live with blindness every day. Most people living with blindness have fulfilling lives just like the rest of the world.
Senses Work Together
So, senses. How many do we have? Five? These days, scientists say it’s closer to six or seven. We have sight, taste, hearing, touch, and smell. These are the ones we learned as a child and the ones every person could name right away, but we also have a sense of space and a sense of our own body in that space as well as a sense of balance. Some scientists are considering the existence of a sense of our muscles contracting and relaxing as well as a sense of how much oxygen is in certain arteries. We certainly aren’t consciously aware of all these senses, but they’re going on within us all at once.
Each sense works with some of the others to fully explore our environments. Take taste and smell for example. You’ve been told to hold your nose and swallow that cough syrup you hate, right? It does, in fact, make a difference in the potency of taste. Have you ever spoken to someone who has lost the sense of smell? Well, I have, and he certainly adds more pepper to his food and has trouble tasting when the milk has gone out of date. These two senses work together, and so do the others. Hearing and sight also work well together to tell your brain what your friend is communicating with his voice and his body. These two have a complex relationship within our daily lives.
A person’s sense of balance and sense of space are both linked to sight, but they are not contingent on that sight. Have you seen a blind person using a white can? That is one of the many ways that we can compensate for the loss or impairment of one sense.
If you play video games, you can test this theory out by playing with the sound turned off. Despite the visual cues and the cues from the vibration of the controller (for you console gamers), discerning where an animal or person is coming from can be a challenge.
The Brain Works with the Information Available
But, really, do the other senses improve when one is lost? No. I think the brain improves instead. Our brains are these vastly complex and almost magical organs made up of neurons and pathways and so much more. When one part of the brain stops working or stops receiving feedback in the case of a lost sense, it compensates. Our brains are so vastly resilient. For example, a person with severe, unrelenting seizures may have a part of his brain removed, and after time that person’s brain is able to reroute most of the functions that took place in that part of the brain. Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, right?
When we lose a sense, or some of the sense’s input, our brains do the same thing. They can’t make it possible to see again after sight loss, but they do something just as fascinating. The brain takes the other senses available and pulls them into a more cohesive picture of a person’s surroundings. So, the individual senses are not enhanced. Instead, the brain takes those pieces that remain and forms them into a new picture of the environment.
Having said all of that, I hear everything, and having to rely on my hearing so much has taught me to absorb auditory information efficiently. Does that mean that I learn best by lecture or audiobook etc.? Absolutely not. You’d be surprised to learn that I, in fact, am a visual learner. Writing and reading are the ways in which I learn best. I know people who are blind and absolutely adore audio books. I used them often with school because they save me from experiencing eye strain, but they usually put me to sleep. So, though our brains compensate when we lose a sense, they do not compensate in the same ways. Fascinating stuff, right?
In conclusion, our brains are so complex and adaptable. When one sense fails, the others work together to help us function, and most of us function quite well.