Does blindness result in superior memory?

We depend on what we can see …
but can we depend on its accuracy?

reading Braille

Research indicates that congenitally blind people usually have better memories than sighted people

Is it possible that blindness actually results in superior memory? We’re used to thinking that what we see plays a big part in what we remember. In fact, the visual input that floods into our brains is by far the biggest of all the sensory inputs. So I suppose it’s natural to assume that what we see must play a huge part in what we recall. The problem is, we become dependent on it, and we assume that we accurately recall everything we see . But you and I both know that’s not always the case.

In fact, recent research stands the old idea of visual input being of the utmost importance in terms of memory right on its head. Researchers at the University of Bath have discovered that blind people actually have better memories than the sighted. In particular,congenitally blind people, i.e. those born blind, fared best in tests. A research team at the university’s psychology department ran tests on three groups of people – congenitally blind people, those with late-onset blindness, and sighted individuals.

Those born blind had more accurate recall

The people in each group were played a series of spoken words and were then asked to recall what they had heard. Previous research had revealed that in similar tests, people often confused certain words that were connected in some way. For example, if the list contained words such as ‘fire’ and ‘chimney’, the word ‘smoke’ would sometimes be falsely remembered. It was as though the images that were brought to mind were being confused with similar remembered images.

In this particular research, the congenitally blind participants recalled more words than the other groups, and with less confusion. Blindness certainly didn’t seem to be a drawback when it came to memorising data. The false memories that are sometimes created in people’s minds simply didn’t seem to play a part in their memorisation.

Dr Achille Pasqualotto, first author of the study, said, “We found that congenitally blind participants reported significantly more correct words than both late-onset blind and sighted people”. He further commented that congenitally blind participants ‘can store more items and with a higher fidelity’.

Memory can be undependable

It is well documented in scientific and forensic work that human memory can be riddled with distortions and illusions, and it appears to be normal that such discrepancies exist. In criminal cases, it’s common for eyewitnesses to report, with a fair amount of conviction, very different accounts of what happened. They were all witnesses to the same crime, but they ‘saw’ wildly differing things. Several studies have also shown that blind people (specially those born blind) possess superior verbal and memory skills. This study seems to back up earlier research.

Dr Michael Proulx, who led the study, said,

“Our results show that visual experience has a significant negative impact on both the number of items remembered and the accuracy of semantic memory, and also demonstrates the importance of adaptive neural plasticity in the congenitally blind brain for enhanced memory retrieval mechanisms”.

 

I guess a less technical translation of that could be: “Visual input can make it harder to create reliable and accurate memories … and certain regions of the brain in those that were born blind can be press-ganged into service in new ways so that they can improve memory and recall in the absence of sight”.

I think this demonstrates that we tend to depend too much on what we see. In fact, what we see can, ironically, blind us to what is actually there. Which brings to mind the old saying, “There’s none so blind as he who will not see”.

Sight can get in the way

It seems we need to be aware that depending too much on the visual can be a mistake. We would probably do better to take in as much information from a scene or an event as we can using ALL our senses. To make the effect even more pronounced, we should probably close our eyes and review the information mentally as soon as possible, allowing every opportunity for the information to be encoded as a memory.

Handy Tip

Next time you’re grabbing forty winks and someone takes a pop because you’re falling asleep, just tell them that you’re allowing your hippocampus the requisite opportunity to process and categorise the information you’ve just been focusing on.


That should confuse them long enough for you to get your wits about you and come up with a more detailed excuse!

Perhaps, when we’re studying information, we should make it a regular part of the procedure to pause occasionally and, with eyes closed, go over what we’ve just been focusing on. So much goes into the brain in the form of visual input that it’s quite feasible that what you’re looking at can interfere with what you’ve just seen, or just been reading.

It’s interesting to note, by the way, that participants at the World Memory Championships routinely don an eyemask or dark glasses during some of the events. They seem to think that having their vision restricted gives them an edge when they’re trying to memorise or recall something.

Do you think maybe they know something we don’t?

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