“So…your hearing must be, like, really really crazy good, right?”
“Actually, no, it’s just that I know how to use—“
“…and your sense of touch? It must be amazing!”
“Again, it’s just that I know—“
“…you must have, like, super senses!”
“Wait, are you like Daredevil?”
If you’re blind (or if you have any other disability, for that matter) then you’ve heard this one before. If you’re sighted, you’ve probably wondered about it. Today, I shall make it my mission to dispel the myths once and for all. Tell your friends! Seriously! This is bigger than IOS 8, and you won’t even have to put up with a U2 album!
Let me start out by reassuring you that assuming we have heightened senses is both logical and not entirely false. There is evidence that the neurons normally responsible for helping us see would instead find other tasks to perform, since our bodies don’t much like wasting resources. There is also evidence that the visual cortex—so much larger than those devoted to our other senses—might rewire itself after awhile, seeking more urgent work to do. So, to expect that we might have better hearing or a more sensitive touch is not unreasonable. In fact, it may even be that the nerve endings in our fingertips become more sensitive the more we read braille; the fingers I use to do this are definitely more sensitive to fine detail than the fingers I don’t use much. So, do we have heightened senses? Maybe, but if so, the difference is not nearly as significant as some imagine it to be.
What we do have is a better understanding of how to use our senses, particularly hearing, touch, and smell. We can all hear echoes, but blind people are better at deciphering what those echoes can tell them about, say, where the nearest building is. We can all smell cafeteria food or coffee, but blind people will probably rely on this as a scent clue to help them locate a particular room. We can all feel bumps on a page, but blind people are particularly adept at figuring out just what those bumps mean without having to look at them first, as many sighted braille readers do. In other words, we don’t have “super senses”; we just know how to use what we have.
I’m usually very patient with people who think I can hear far better than they can; as I said, this is a fairly reasonable idea. I’m less patient with the more ridiculous assumptions people make, many of which border on the ludicrous. It’s gotten so bad that I have frequently joked about whether or not we can hear grass growing, paint drying, or the whispering of souls who’ve gone from this world. In fact, Gregg tells me that he’d like to inform you that all paint dries in the key of B flat, just so you know.
I’d like to share a tidbit with you that will illustrate some of the more incredible ideas otherwise intelligent people have come up with over the years. A few months ago, Carly Marno, (a Persian cat breeder), was interviewing at a cat show. At one point, she was asked whether she had some kind of “special bond” with her cats because of her blindness. She asserted that she did not. While she does intensively handle all of her cats for obvious reasons—and knows them all very intimately because of it—she does not feel she has some kind of special connection with them just because she can’t see them. In fact, cats are highly visual creatures, which makes the likelihood of a special bond even smaller. Undeterred, the interviewer kept probing, insisting that she really must have some kind of special blindy superpower that linked her with her cats. Carly is very successful, so perhaps the interviewer was grasping at straws, trying to figure out how a blind person could do so well. Who knows? Either way, she refused to give in, and the interview was never published. Coincidence? You decide.
I think people desperately want to believe that we have super senses, because it explains how we can be so competent at times. People simply don’t understand how someone without sight could possibly get around as well as we often do, so they rationalize it by deciding that we’re just blessed with superpowers. Not so! Being as competent as we can be takes a lot of hard work, practice, and copious amounts of trial and error. I have even heard people put forth the idea that greats like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles were as talented as they were because they had an advantage over sighted people. It couldn’t possibly be because they were, you know, particularly talented. No, people had to justify their success by claiming they had God-given superpowers to compensate. Sorry to say, but we blind people don’t get some kind of consolation prize in return for the loss of our sight. We aren’t given superpowers in other areas to make up for it. All we have is what everyone has, and a particular drive to make use of it. In fact, the idea that we would need superpowers to be successful at all is a bit insulting, no? Instead of assuming we can hear gaps in the sidewalk or, I dunno, smell a person’s emotions, ask us how we do the things we do. Most of us will be very happy to tell you.
I’ll draw this post to a close; I have to go and sort my laundry using only my sense of taste! Did you know that white clothing tastes very distinctly of lemongrass? It’s quite a treat!
Below are a few articles about the link between blindness and heightened or altered senses. The last link is a blog post by CrazyMusician, which further explains how hearing can help us navigate, and what can happen if our hearing is impaired for any reason. You should also visit Carly’s cattery: She has cat pictures! Everybody loves cat pictures!