The Inner World of a Deaf Person
It is commonly thought that deaf people are more intuitive. They pick up on things that hearing people generally do not. In her incredible memoir, In Silence, Ruth Sidransky speaks of her Deaf mother’s “well-honed intuitive sense”
(Sidransky, 1990). So where does that come from? Do deaf people have psychic superpowers? Well, not really. They just apprehend the world differently from hearing people.
Studies show that the lack of auditory faculties does not mean these parts of the brain are left unused in deaf people. They quickly get rewired and exercised using other senses. As a result, deaf people have a strong tendency to be more aware of their surroundings. They tend to pick up subtle clues, such as body language and emotions from others.
What is cross-modal reorganization?
It is a common belief that people who have been deprived of one sense learn to use the other ones better in order to make up for their deficiency. What actually happens is that the brain adapts to the loss by putting areas normally used to handle that sensory information to use. These areas are put to work processing other senses. This is called cross-modal reorganization or cross-modal neuroplasticity.
Tom Allen, the director of the Visual Language and Visual Learning Center at Gallaudet University, explains that deaf people don’t actually see things better than hearing people. The difference, he says, is in visual attention, which he defines as, “the ability to attend appropriately to things through the visual modality. In other words, where are you directing your attention?”
Gallaudet University’s classrooms are arranged in semi-circles, not rows, to help maintain students’ visual attention. (Image Credit to Gallaudet University https://wamu.org/story/11/06/28/gallaudet)
What this means in effect is that deaf people are more sensitive to visual queues in their peripheral vision. This can be very beneficial for deaf drivers for example. But this doesn’t mean that deaf people see better, they just see a little differently.
Cross-modal reorganization can also cause issues, however. For instance, if the brain reorganizes itself to compensate for the loss of hearing, what happens when hearing is restored? Often, the brain has a difficult time reallocating auditory areas once they have been used to process other senses. This may interfere with the success of cochlear implants. It also explains why older people who are partially deaf find hearing aids confusing or unhelpful.
The importance of language development
Most studies on cross-modal reorganization have focused on blind individuals rather than deaf ones. But it turns out that deafness is significantly more serious than blindness in terms of the effects it has on cognition because language is so integral to brain functions such as memory, abstract thinking, and self-awareness.
Hellen Keller was once quoted as saying: “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. […] Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another” (Dennett, 1991). It turns out that deaf people who are forced to use spoken language are only slightly better off than those with no language at all when it comes to brain cognition. These people never develop what is known as an “inner voice.” What truly makes a difference is, you guessed it: sign language!
Miranda Pickersgill, the chief of deaf services for the Leeds Local Education Authority, tells us that, “bilingualism is still very much a hot potato. We have come in for a lot of flak and been accused of pushing deaf children into a signing ghetto. Yet the deaf had a big price to pay when the old methods failed. Not only could they not communicate, but they were left without a code to think in. We can no longer ignore what the research tells us.”
To sum things up, the inner experience of deaf people depends on many variables, including language acquisition and the use of cochlear implants. Scientific data is clear on one thing though: sign language is a significant factor in developing brain cognition and the inner world of deaf individuals.
Did you enjoy reading this article? You might be interested in "THE LANGUAGE SYSTEM OF THE BRAIN - SIGN LANGUAGE AND COCHLEAR IMPLANTS" and
“Brains are Better with Sign Language” where research answers the question, could sign language be beneficial for both hearing children and adults.
You may also gain insight with my conversation with Kimberly Sanzo “Language First?” and Why ASL is Important for Deaf Children. Learn how Language First was born and discover what Language First has to offer!