Blind people recall speech better than sighted people

"It's interesting that people who are blind only showed an advantage with verbal memory," says Marina Bedny. "Blind people may use language like a  mental tool to remember information." (Credit: Marc Wathieu/Flickr)

People who are blind can remember speech better than sighted people, according to a new study.

The research also finds, however, that a person’s ability to see makes no difference in how they remember sound effects.

“It’s interesting that people who are blind only showed an advantage with verbal memory,” says senior author Marina Bedny, an associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, whose work regularly compares blind and sighted individuals’ brains. “Blind people may use language like a mental tool to remember information.”

The 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.

In a second test, the participants listened to letters while solving mathematical equations with proposed answers. Participants determined if equation 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,” says Karen Arcos, a blind postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who earned her PhD at University of California, Irvine, and lead author of the study in Experimental Brain Research.

“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.”

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” says 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.

Nora Harhen, a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, and Rita Loiotile, a former Johns Hopkins graduate student are coauthors of the study.

A Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Grant, a grant from the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research and University of California President’s Postdoctoral fellowships awarded to Arcos supported the work.

Source: Jason Lucas for Johns Hopkins University