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Blindness and Better Hearing

It's a common notion that blind people have more developed powers of hearing than people who can see. In the Academy Award-winning movie "Ray," for example, the young, recently blinded Ray Charles is shown to have very finely tuned hearing. Standing very still in the middle of a room, he is able to track down the hushed movements of a small bug. It was even reported that Jamie Foxx, the actor who played Ray Charles, when he was artificially blinded began to tune in to sounds he otherwise would not have noticed.

Is it true that blind people have better, almost supernatural hearing abilities?

According to some studies, on average the answer is yes. While not all blind people have enhanced hearing, many outperform sighted people on specialized hearing tests. A common experiment asks participants to localize sound, which involves wearing earphones and pinpointing from which direction it's coming and in which ear it can be heard. Such tests typically show that people who have been blind from an early age are better at this task than people with sight. Furthermore, brain scans suggest that parts of the brain normally used in processing sight, such as the visual cortex, may be converted to enhancing a blind person's ability to process sound.

Scientists have a long way to go in understanding exactly how and why this happens, but it's worth further investigation. The more scientists know about how one part of the brain can take over for another part, the better they may be able to help blind people navigate the world through sound.

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